Trainer Bob Baffert woke up at 5 a.m. Sunday, much earlier than he has been getting up the last 90 days. He wanted to go back to a job he has enjoyed and excelled at for more than four decades.
He considered getting up earlier but passed on the idea.
“I thought about getting there at 12:01 a.m. and go to the barn and start hammering the signs back up,” he said with a laugh while sitting in box 227 in the Santa Anita grandstand watching his horses train for the first time after a three-month suspension following a positive medication test on Medina Spirit at last year’s Kentucky Derby.
A handful of people were there to see the familiar head of white hair. Trainers John Sadler and Tim Yakteen were there as usual as was jockey Mike Smith and a revolving contingent of well-wishers. Yakteen even brought a box of donuts, which were sitting there when Baffert arrived around 6:30. Baffert’s wife, Jill, came along for his first day back at work.
“It feels like the first day of school,” Baffert said.
When he arrived at his barn, the first person he saw was his longtime assistant Jimmy Barnes.
“He came over and gave me a big ole hug,” Baffert, 69, said. “He said, ‘Thank goodness, you’re back.’ I haven’t talked to Jimmy since I left. Our whole barn is like a family, I’ve known them all for so long.”
Depending on who you talk to, Baffert is either beloved or reviled, with more in the former than latter category. He has been a particular target of animal rights activists with PETA calling for his removal from the Hall of Fame. It’s because of his celebrity that he is a particularly valuable target. He is the one name non-racing people know.
It will take a few days for the Baffert barn to return to normal. When he was handed a 90-day suspension by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which is honored in all states, the signage on his barn had to come down, plus his office had to be cleaned out of personal items.
“There was supposed to be no sign of Bob Baffert,” the trainer said.
It wasn’t as difficult on the horses as Baffert transferred most of them to Sean McCarthy, who just moved into the same space and kept most of Baffert’s employees. McCarthy’s wife, Kim, is Baffert’s office manager, so everyone knew all the players. Four of Baffert’s better horses were moved to Yakteen, his former assistant, who qualified two of them for the Kentucky Derby and another for the Preakness.
“They did a great job,” Baffert said of his relief trainers. “They came in there and took over. It was tough. I was proud of them how they kept it together. And most of my clients, they stuck with me.
“I lost some horses. Some owners are still waiting [to see what happens]. I lost [2-year-old Eclipse winner] Corniche," who moved to the barn of Todd Pletcher. "That hurt. All in all, I’ve got great group of owners. They hung there in there with me, they know the truth and the facts.”
The truth and the facts will ultimately be decided through litigation. Baffert is currently banned from Churchill Downs until after next year’s Kentucky Derby. He also has been excluded from racing in New York until January, even though he has had no violations in the state for the almost three decades he has raced there. Pending court cases and hearings are aplenty, including restoring Medina Spirit as winner of the Kentucky Derby. The colt was stripped of the title by the KHRC. He died in December of what was thought to be a cardiac event. The necropsy could not definitively determine the cause of death.
The problems started when Baffert was dealing with a stretch of four medication violations in a little more than a year. Two were in Arkansas, the result of contamination, something a trainer has no control over. One was in California and the other in Kentucky. Baffert had explanations for all of them, but the totality of them painted a troublesome picture.
Then came the Kentucky Derby, which Baffert won with longshot Medina Spirit. A week later, word was spreading that the colt had tested positive for a legal medication that is not allowed on race day.
“When they hit me with it, I knew my life would change,” Baffert said. “We knew it that day. I was at a point in my life where I had just won my seventh Derby and I was just cruising. And then that happened.”
Baffert went on the offensive, vigorously denying there could be a failed test. It’s a move he now questions.
“If I had to do anything different, I wouldn’t have had a press conference,” Baffert said. “But it was out there and [the media] was waiting. … I was trying to get ahead of it. I was convinced after talking to my veterinarians, that [the positive] was impossible. Then it dawned on them 48 hours later, be careful with the [ointment] Otomax.”
Baffert’s legal team has contended that Medina Spirit was treated with an ointment that contained betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory, to control a rash on the horse’s hind quarter. It's the team's belief that the rule prohibiting a positive betamethasone test on race day applies only when the medication is injected, the usual application, not applied in an ointment.
“When they came into the barn to shake it down [as part of the investigation], it was right there in the kid’s brush bucket, but they didn’t see it because they weren’t looking for it," Baffert said. "I wish they would have found it, because it was right there.”
Baffert’s next miscalculation was going on Fox News and saying he was the victim of “cancel culture,” a politically charged phrase.
“I was talking to someone at Churchill Downs and I said they canceled me out,” Baffert said. “That’s really what I meant to say. I should have said it that way. Someone very important, and I’m not going to say who, told me, ‘You can think it, but you can’t say it.’ ”
Baffert was eventually handed a 90-day suspension. Normally a stay of the suspension is granted if a trainer seeks an appeal, which Baffert did. Yet the KHRC denied the stay and Baffert had no choice but to accept the suspension.
“I thought he would get through the first half of it, with the Derby and other big races,” Jill Baffert said. “But I thought midway through it he would get antsy, and he did. Forty-five days is a long time to be away from work, and then you realize you have another 45 to go.”
The trainer said he didn’t watch a lot of racing when he was away, in part because he didn’t know when his horses were running.
“My phone was quiet, nobody called me,” Bob Baffert said. “It was all up to Sean, Jimmy and Tim. Once in a while we would watch a race, but usually not too much. I just didn’t let the situation get me upset. … It was best for me to just check out.”
His wife took over the role of what she calls “Bobby-sitting.”
“He is a glass half full kind of guy,” Jill Baffert said. “And that has helped his success in racing. He’s a very optimistic person. There were times [these past months] where I was frustrated, and irritated and hurt. He kept me lifted up in so many ways.”
Bob Baffert did make the most of his time away. He spent the time around the running of the Kentucky Derby in Arizona visiting his brother and some owners. He watched the Belmont Stakes at Chileno Bay at Cabo San Lucas, where he took his entire family for six days.
“We were in a club [at the resort] and nobody knew who I was,” Baffert said. “And then my picture comes on the television and people looked around and said, 'Is that you? Yeah, that’s me.' ”
He also attended some sales in Florida and spent his time before the suspension ended in Tennessee visiting his wife's family. He tied in a trip to Kentucky, where he thought an appeal hearing on Medina Spirit would be held. But it was postponed until Aug. 22.
“With the hearing postponed, we went and saw [Triple Crown winners] American Pharoah and Justify,” Baffert said. “We went to Old Friends [retirement farm] and saw Silver Charm and Game on Dude. It was really nice. They do a fantastic job. We even saw Pharoah’s mother.”
He also visited the grave of Medina Spirit, where his wife placed a wreath of flowers.
Baffert probably will return to racing next week at Los Alamitos. He keeps about 40 horses at Santa Anita and another 45 or so at Los Alamitos, mostly younger horses. Then he’ll move down to Del Mar for the summer meeting.
Baffert says he is looking forward, not backward.
“This game will make you bitter if you let it,” he said. “You get beat, you take the loss and just move on. It’s water under the bridge and you can’t let it bother you. We fought the good fight, but we didn’t win.
“We’ll be back."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.