By T. D. Thornton
Alleging “hypocrisy” and “backdoor” tactics on the part of defendant New York Racing Association (NYRA) to “vindictively target” Bob Baffert, attorneys for the seven-time GI Kentucky Derby winning trainer supplied a federal judge with a 434-page “memo” Wednesday in support of trying to get the court to overturn a NYRA-imposed ban on Baffert.
NYRA's exclusion of Baffert from Saratoga Race Course, Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack was mandated May 17 by the association because of the Hall of Fame trainer's repeated equine medication violations in other jurisdictions.
The voluminous electronic file of the plaintiff's arguments and exhibits was uploaded to United States District Court (Eastern District of New York) July 7, just five days before the case is scheduled to come before the judge next Monday morning.
According to queries from lawyers listed in the case file, attorneys still didn't know late in the day Wednesday if the judge expected them to arrange for live witnesses to testify at Monday's hearing, or if the court proceedings would be conducted solely via attorney arguments (which is what counsel for both parties wrote that they preferred).
“Nowhere in NYRA's Response is there any contention that Baffert has violated any New York statute or racing rule,” the trainer's attorneys wrote in the filing. “In fact, the opposite is true. Over the course of his 46-year training career, including more than 30 years of racing in New York, Baffert has never even been accused of violating a New York rule and he has never faced discipline from either NYRA or the New York State Gaming Commission [NYSGC].
“Despite his distinguished New York racing career, without even a hint of wrongdoing, NYRA believes it has free rein to unilaterally void his constitutionally protected property rights and ban him from all activity in New York without notice and for an indefinite period of time based solely on unproven allegations of a minor infraction (an overage of an allowable medication) in another jurisdiction.”
Wednesday's memo from the plaintiff caps a week-long flurry of back-and-forth legal filings in the case, which was initiated June 14 when Baffert filed a civil complaint against NYRA, alleging that the banishment violates his Fourteenth Amendment constitutional right to due process.
NYRA told the court this week that it opposes Baffert getting any type of injunction that would overrule its ban, which the association imposed in the wake of Baffert's shifting explanations after Medina Spirit (Protonico) tested positive for betamethasone after winning the May 1 Kentucky Derby.
That finding was the fifth drug positive in a Baffert trainee over the last year and his third in a Grade I stakes during that time. Medina Spirit's positive has not yet been adjudicated by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, but the gaming corporation Churchill Downs, Inc., has already barred Baffert for a two-year period from its five Thoroughbred tracks.
One new bone of contention that emerged in the July 7 filing is that Baffert's legal team isn't pleased with NYRA's repeated categorization that its ban on Baffert is “temporary” (NYRA did initially tell Baffert via letter that it would reconsider his exclusion once Kentucky based on information revealed during the course of the investigation.)
“One thing is clear: there is nothing 'temporary' about NYRA's suspension,” Baffert's filing stated. “It is now running on 51 days with no end in sight, and with no mention of a hearing through which the suspension would potentially be lifted. And if NYRA's goal was to keep Medina Spirit out of the [GI] Belmont [S.], that mission was accomplished.
“The Belmont was run more than a month ago and NYRA offers no reason for why the 'temporary' suspension should continue indefinitely–other than the debunked notion that it is acting to protect the 'interest of horse racing.' Enough is enough.
“This hypocrisy clearly demonstrates that NYRA's claim it must act against Baffert to protect the 'interest of racing' is totally false–NYRA's own prior actions prove that affording due process to trainers is perfectly consistent with NYRA's mission. It is clear that NYRA's stated need to exclude Baffert immediately 'in the interest of racing' is little more than a pretext to vindictively target him.”
The defendant's attorneys contended last week in an opposing memo that “Given Plaintiff's history of drug-related violations, Medina Spirit's positive test, Plaintiff's contradictory statements, Plaintiff's [then-temporary] suspension from Churchill Downs, and the fact that the Belmont was fast approaching, NYRA took the only sensible action under the circumstances–it temporarily suspended Plaintiff from entering and stabling horses at its Racetracks.”
In response, the plaintiff's filing on July 7 tried to boil down the legal merits of the case as such: “First, Baffert was not afforded any due process before he was summarily suspended by NYRA. He was given no notice of any charges against him and no opportunity to be heard. Instead, he received a letter stating that he was immediately suspended and would not be permitted to race any horses in New York. That letter was issued over 50 days ago and, to date, Baffert has not been afforded a due process hearing. Courts have continually rejected NYRA's efforts to either deny or limit a licensee's right of access to racetracks without pre-deprivation due process of law.”
“Second, NYRA does not have the authority to suspend Baffert trainer's license under New York law. That authority rests exclusively with the NYSGC. As long as Baffert has a valid trainer's license with the Gaming Commission–which he does–NYRA cannot prohibit him from exercising that license at New York's state-owned racetracks. If it believes Baffert has
engaged in conduct that warrants the suspension of his license, it needs to take that matter up with the [NYSGC, which has] been noticeably silent throughout this process because, unlike NYRA, it is following New York racing law and waiting for the administrative process related to Medina Spirit that is currently ongoing in Kentucky to play out before taking any action.
“Neither may NYRA claim under these circumstances that it has some common-law right of exclusion that empowers it to prohibit Baffert from exercising his constitutionally protected right to use his trainer's license. NYRA's suspension of Baffert is 'tantamount' to revoking his license issued by the NYSGC, and NYRA may not do through the backdoor what it is statutorily prohibited from doing through the front,” the filing stated.