It’s all up to Bob Baffert now.
The 90-day suspension levied against horse racing’s most famous trainer by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and reciprocated by tracks around the country, including his home track at Santa Anita, ends July 3. After that date, the six-time Kentucky Derby winner can begin training horses again and entering them in races.
Not at Churchill Downs. The Louisville track has a year left on its private-property ban of Baffert instigated when the now late Medina Spirit tested positive for betamethasone after winning the 2021 Kentucky Derby. That came one year after a Baffert horse tested positive for the same drug in the Kentucky Oaks. Baffert has legally contested Churchill’s ruling, to no avail.
Nor is Baffert allowed to enter horses at New York tracks. After a protracted back and forth battle, a three-person NYRA panel ruled Friday that Baffert is suspended for one year from its facilities for “conduct detrimental to the best interests of the sport.” With time served of 59 days plus the 90-day suspension levied by the KHRC, he can return to New York after Jan. 25, 2023.
Much to the detriment of the sport, Baffert has not gone quietly. The game’s most recognizable figure has gone to court to fight each penalty every step of the way, keeping himself and racing in the news with a slew of negative headlines. Never mind that he has had over 30 overages over four decades, that before his suspension he’d had six race-day overages in a span of 17 months.
Even the most diligent trainers can have an occasional horse test positive for an overage. It happens. Not every trainer is labeled as the sport’s Lance Armstrong, however.
Baffert’s excuses have been lame, his “cancel culture” defense nonsensical. Example: Baffert attorney Clark Brewster responded to last week’s NYRA ruling by saying the panel was “blindly driven by jealousy and self-interest to destroy Bob.”
I’ve never thought Baffert was a doper. There is little evidence has committed the same performance-enhancing sins alleged against fellow trainer Jason Servis, whose federal trial is scheduled to start in January 2023.
Most of Baffert’s overages have involved therapeutics used to keep horses in training, which in some cases mask injuries. Baffert’s successful formula is based on keeping his horses fit. To do that, therapeutics are required. Far too often in the trainer’s case, however, he has crossed the line, giving his horses an unfair advantage over fellow trainers who have followed the rules.
And Baffert hasn’t helped matters by not following up on pledges to do better (he hasn’t) and change veterinarians (he didn’t). While it’s true the trainer has numerous horses in his care, it’s also true he has the financial means to hire people to oversee his barn and make sure the same violations don’t keep happening over and over again.
Now it’s up to Baffert. The sport has changed. It had to change. The first phase (racetrack safety) of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act kicks in July 1. If fully implemented, there will be more oversight, tougher penalties and a more transparent process. It’s the only thing that can clean up and save racing.
Can Baffert clean up his act? Can he adjust his methods to the new environment? We shall see. As it stands now, he won’t be able to enter the 2023 Kentucky Derby. His 2023 Preakness status is up in the air. But NYRA’s ruling paved the way for Baffert to run horses in the 2023 Belmont Stakes, a race he has won three times.
And with the 2022 Breeders’ Cup scheduled for Keeneland, Baffert will be able to enter horses in Kentucky on Nov. 4-5. Despite Baffert’s past, there are plenty of owners still more than happy to put their horses in the care of a trainer who has won the Triple Crown not once but twice. We’ll see if the sport’s most famous trainer can reward their faith and follow the rules. All the rules.
It’s up to him.