Trainer Bob Baffert (left) and Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen
Can both sides in a dispute be wrong?
In a word, yes.
Watching the long, drawn-out legal battle between Churchill Downs Inc. and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is both painful and tiresome. It’s painful because of the way it has taken some of the joy away from what is one of the most exciting times of the racing year: the run-up to the Triple Crown. It’s tiresome because of the never-ending nature of the fight between two outsized egos that began following Medina Spirit’s positive test for the corticosteroid betamethasone after the colt’s first-place finish – and subsequent disqualification – in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.
A quick summary.
One week after registering what would have been an unprecedented seventh victory for Baffert in the Kentucky Derby, word leaked out that Medina Spirit failed a drug test. Baffert flew from California to Kentucky and held a press conference at his barn to deny that Medina Spirit had ever been treated with that drug. He then went on an extraordinarily misguided national television media tour, blaming something called cancel culture, among other things, but never accepting responsibility himself.
“We live in a different world now,” Baffert said during an interview on Fox News. “This America is different, and it was like a cancel culture kind of a thing.”
Baffert was referring to the fact that Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen took an immediate step to exclude him indefinitely from their properties when officials there learned of the failed test result. The ban was eventually set at two years, which would effectively keep Baffert out of the Kentucky Derby in 2022 and ’23.
This was, after all, the second time in less than a year that a Baffert horse had tested positive for the same drug in a major race under the Twin Spires. The previous failed test was for the 3-year-old filly Gamine, who was disqualified from a third-place finish in the 2020 Kentucky Oaks. He had three other failed drug tests in about a year’s time that Baffert blamed on members of his barn staff for urinating in a stall or wearing pain patches that somehow got into the system of two horses.
A few days after learning of the positive test and denying that Medina Spirit had been treated with betamethasone, Baffert discovered that his veterinarian had prescribed an ointment containing the drug to treat a skin rash. That discovery should have taken minutes, not days. The defense put forth by Baffert’s legal team was that it was okay to test positive for the medication if it wasn’t injected and instead was applied topically. That argument didn’t work.
Baffert fought the disqualification of Medina Spirit from the Kentucky Derby, and lost. He fought the 90-day suspension handed him by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, and lost. He fought the two-year exclusion from Churchill Downs properties, and lost.
With each revival of legal arguments by his attorneys, more and more people began saying “enough already.” Baffert isn’t doing himself any favors with this prolonged fight, and he’s not helping the game, either.
But it’s not like Churchill Downs Inc. and its management team are sympathetic figures. Look at the way they’ve treated people in the Illinois Thoroughbred industry, pulling the rug out from under them with the sale or Arlington Park, or how they’ve bullied Daily Racing Form off their properties. It’s not a company that gives you warm and fuzzy feelings.
From the outset, it was clear that Churchill Downs banned Baffert over fears that he was damaging the most profitable racing brand in their portfolio of racetracks and casinos: the Kentucky Derby. Churchill officials, hoping to protect that brand, moved too soon with their punishment, rather than waiting for the board of stewards to investigate and do their job. What they seem to have forgotten is that no one individual has done more to popularize the Derby over the last 25 years than Baffert.
With just over 10 weeks until the May 6 Kentucky Derby, Baffert has an embarrassment of riches in the 3-year-old ranks, including Arabian Knight, the No. 1 horse on many Top 10 Derby prospect lists. The best of those horses are in the process of being transferred to former Baffert assistant Tim Yakteen, who saddled a pair of former Baffert runners in last year’s Derby.
If one or more horses from Baffert’s barn earn qualifying points and run in this year’s Kentucky Derby while under Yakteen’s care, they can be immediately switched back to Baffert’s barn for the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. If Churchill Downs is thinking “out of sight, out of mind,” when it comes to Baffert and the Derby, they are sadly mistaken. Baffert will be the story on the first Saturday in May, whether he’s physically at Churchill Downs or not. It’s going to be messy and won’t do the Derby brand or the sport any good.
Much of this could have been avoided if both Baffert and Churchill Downs had gathered all the facts and allowed cooler heads to prevail, rather than engaging in a scorched earth war of words through the media and legal system. No one is coming out of this looking good.
That’s my view from the eighth pole.