Will Bob Baffert Make It to the 2022 Kentucky Derby?

| January 19, 2022 8:56 am PDT

The battle most likely to affect the line-up in the starting gate at Churchill Downs in May isn’t on a track—it’s behind doors, in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms, where the future of dozens of the horses under Hall of Famer Bob Baffert’s tutelage will be decided.

I’m talking about one of the great unanswered questions of the year: What will come of Churchill Downs’ unique two-year ban on permitting Bob Baffert, any horses he is training, and any of his associates from competing at any track run by Churchill Downs (that includes not only Churchill Downs in Louisville but also Turfway Park in Florence)?

Which could mean that some of the world’s best three-year-old thoroughbreds may be denied a shot at least one jewel of the Triple Crown, the 2022 Kentucky Derby.

How It All Began

Without going into Baffert’s long history of training horses that have tested positive for various inappropriate and/or disallowed drugs, the igniting spark for the current legal conflagration was Medina Spirit’s positive test for betamethasone.

Betamethasine is an anti-inflammatory drug that is regularly used on horses, but in the thoroughbred racing world, it is not allowed in the horse’s blood system on the day of a race.

Because of the test—followed by a second test that confirmed the presence of the drug—Medina Spirit was disqualified from the 2021 Kentucky Derby, and his victory in that race nullified, passing the win on to the second-place finisher, Mandaloun.

Churchill Downs Inc. also implemented a unique rule that prohibited Baffert from competing in any race held at any track owned by Churchill Downs for the next two years.

The prohibition extends to any horse subsequently trained by any person associated with or working for Baffert.

The Domino Effect

One of the secondary effects of the two-yar ban could be that Baffert loses a number of the horses he was training for graded stakes races.

Baffert told a federal judge in New York last year that a similar and nearly simultaneous ban imposed on him by the New York Racing Association NYRA put him in danger of losing horses he trains for a number of clients.

The list was provided to the New York court after the NYRA followed Churchill Downs in banning him from the three tracks it oversees—Saratoga, Aqueduct, and most importantly, Belmont Park, home of another Triple Crown jewel, the Belmont Stakes.

Those clients were Gavin Murphy of SF Bloodstock (co-owner of Newgrange and Rockefeller), Jack Wolf of Starlight Racing (Messier), Peter Fluor of Speedway Stable (Corniche), Sol Kumin of Madaket Stables (co-owner of Newgrange and Rockefeller), and George Bolton.

For instance, several of Baffert’s horses—Corniche, Messier, and Newgrange among them—are favored by futures oddsmakers for the 2022 Kentucky Derby, with Corniche currently at the top of the list at 12/1, Newgrange fourth on the list at 20/1, and Messier eighth on the list at 25/1.

What Bob Baffert Says

Baffert recently instructed his attorneys to send a “draft of a complaint” he intends to file against Churchill Downs, Inc. concerning the two-year ban.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, Baffert’s complaint asserts the ban violates his right to due process, and that he is being unlawfully excluded from competing at Churchill Downs.

Baffert’s attorneys maintain that the presence of betamethasone in Medina Spirit’s system has been “definitely confirmed” by a New York lab to be the result of an ointment used to treat a skin rash rather than via injection.

The complaint has yet to been filed, but seeks a preliminary injunction to keep Churchill Downs Inc. from denying Baffert-trained horses’ entry into races at racetracks it owns and from “prohibiting him from earning points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby” regardless of venue.

The complaint also seeks millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages.

What Churchill Downs Says

Churchill Downs was quick to respond to the draft complaint.

CEO of Churchill Downs Inc. Bill Carstanjen told the New York Times that Baffert’s threatened lawsuit was “completely meritless”. Churchill Downs Inc. is a private company, one with which Baffert voluntarily signed an agreement agreeing to follow the track’s conduct and medication rules.

According to Carstanjen, over the past forty years Baffert’s horses have failed a total of 30 drug tests.

That might seem excessive until you realize that is fewer than one infraction per year—and even more-so when you take into consideration the hundreds of horses Baffert and his team of assistant trainers have in training at any given moment.

How Will This End?

If Churchill Downs prevails, the results will be simple: Baffert and any horses he trains will be prohibited in competing in at least two races of the Triple Crown, not to mention the secondary and tertiary effects that ban will inflict on Baffert’s racing empire.

Oddly enough, the results of the autopsy of Medina Spirit, due out sometime in January 2022, may help owners make some tough decisions, as could the actual filing of Baffert’s complaint against Churchill Downs Inc.

Speaking for Churchill Downs, Bill Carstanjen told the Times he “continues to hold out hope that Mr. Baffert will finally take responsibility for what has occurred under his care and on his watch.”

Several months ago, Baffert also spoke to reporters about the prohibition.

“A lot can happen between now and then,’ he said, “and we’ll see how it plays out.”

We’ll keep you posted.

J.W. Paine

J.W. Paine is one of the most experienced writers at GamblingSites.com. He's written for television and the printed media, and is a published novelist (as Tom Elliott).

Paine loves writing about Las Vegas nearly as much he loves living here. An experienced gambler, he's especially familiar with thoroughbred horseracing, poker, blackjack, and slots.

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