By T. D. Thornton
A federal judge on Friday denied Bob Baffert a preliminary injunction that the Hall of Fame trainer had sought to be eligible to race in this year's GI Kentucky Derby.
Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI), the defendant in Baffert's year-old lawsuit, also scored a legal victory when Judge Rebecca Jennings of United States District Court (Western District of Kentucky) granted the gaming corporation's motion to dismiss the case on five of the six counts that CDI had argued.
Baffert was attempting to reverse the second year of a two-year ban by CDI that prohibits his trainees from racing at CDI-controlled tracks, accruing Derby qualifying points and competing in the Derby.
CDI first imposed that punishment in June 2021 because of a string of drug positives in horses Baffert trained, including two in CDI's most prominent races, the 2020 GI Kentucky Oaks and the 2021 Derby.
“Churchill Downs is pleased that the Court denied Mr. Baffert's demand for a preliminary injunction and granted our motion to dismiss on all but one claim, and on that claim the Court held that Mr. Baffert did not establish a likelihood of success on the merits. Today's opinion is a victory for the integrity of horseracing and we will continue to take action to protect the safety of our human and equine athletes,” CDI spokesperson Tonya Abeln wrote in an emailed statement.
A voicemail message seeking comment from Baffert did not yield a return call prior to deadline for this story.
Baffert's attorney, Clark Brewster, spoke to TDN around 6:30 p.m. Eastern on Friday. He said he was just leaving a federal courthouse in Wisconsin after arguing another case, and that he would only be able to comment based on a summary of the rulings because he had not yet had time to fully read Judge Jennings's orders.
“This is extraordinary, because the whole alleged rule violation was based on the use of a salve or an ointment that was expressly permitted and authorized by the rules,” Brewster said. “There's no question about it. No person could look at it now and say that that was a rule violation…. So then you wonder how a private entity could just take somebody out for two years without even having an interest in knowing the merit of their position…
“All it would have taken was dialogue [with CDI], a fair exchange of information,” Brewster continued. “And this devastating action they took was very damaging to horse racing. It wasn't the use of the salve that was damaging to horse racing. It was the reaction without any knowledge or interest in obtaining knowledge…
“I haven't talked to Bob because I just stepped out of the courtroom,” Brewster said. “But I can tell you, knowing Bob well, he's amazing from the standpoint of accepting other people's actions toward him, even though they're misplaced in the facts.”
Drilling Down the Injunction Denial
“As explained, Baffert is the only trainer whose horses have tested positive in back-to-back marquee races on CDI tracks,” Jennings wrote. “Failing to punish trainers whose horses test positive in marquee races could harm CDI's reputation and the integrity of their races. Moreover, trainers have already earned points towards the 2023 Kentucky Derby. If Plaintiffs' horses are allowed to race, then they would necessarily exclude those who would have otherwise qualified,” Jennings wrote.
“The Court finds that CDI and innocent third parties who have already earned points would be substantially harmed if the court imposed an injunction. Therefore, the substantial harm factor weighs against injunctive relief,” Jennings wrote.
“The final factor the Court must evaluate is 'whether the public interest would be served by the issuance of the injunction.' There is a strong public interest in deterring misconduct on CDI's tracks. Moreover, the Sixth Circuit has held that '[t]he public has a strong interest in holding private parties to their agreements.'
“Baffert signed the Rules and Conditions for Racing and Training and the Stall Application. Accordingly, the Court is inclined to hold the parties to their agreements. The Court finds that the public interest weighs against injunctive relief,” Jennings wrote.
Baffert had initially sued CDI on Feb. 28, 2022, alleging civil rights violations related to what he said was a deprivation of his right to due process of law guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment.
But in her Feb 17, 2023, order, Jennings wrote that Baffert's time lag for renewing his initial motion for preliminary injunction was a factor in her determination not to grant it.
“Plaintiffs renewed their motion for a preliminary injunction approximately 10 months after filing the Complaint…” Jennings wrote. “This means they waited approximately 19 months after the [2021 CDI] suspension to request injunctive relief from this Court. In their reply and at the Feb. 2 hearing, the only excuse Plaintiffs could give for their delay was the pursuit of litigation in other jurisdictions…. Accordingly, Plaintiffs' delay weighs against a finding of irreparable harm from the outset of the Court's analysis.”
Jennings then wrote about other alleged harms Baffert had articulated.
“Plaintiffs contend that the most obvious harm they will suffer is the loss of purses. In response, Defendants contend that the loss of purse money is speculative and inappropriate for injunctive relief….Here, Plaintiffs allege that the amount of winnings they will lose due to CDI's suspension 'is impossible to calculate.' These winnings are impossible to calculate because
they are entirely speculative and theoretical….Accordingly, the Court finds that Plaintiffs' loss of purses is speculative and does not result in irreparable harm.”
Baffert had also argued that his inability to run horses in the Derby would create harms based on a loss of “goodwill” among long-standing clients with Derby prospects. Again, Jennings disagreed.
“Here, although a horse's eligibility to run in the Kentucky Derby is a once in a lifetime opportunity, trainers may enter horses every year,” Jennings wrote. “CDI's suspension is only applicable to [Baffert]. As [a trainer, he] may enter horses in every Kentucky Derby after the suspension expires…. There is no indication that owners would not continue to use Plaintiffs' services after the 2023 Kentucky Derby even if the Court did not enjoin CDI's ban…. Therefore, Plaintiffs have not demonstrated irreparable harm by losing their ability to compete in the 2023 Kentucky Derby.”
Dissecting the Dismissal Motion
Regarding CDI's motion to dismiss the case, Jennings framed her decision this way:
Count I (Violations of Civil Rights): “Plaintiffs have alleged facts sufficient to state a claim for a violation of Baffert's due process rights only as they relate to his trainer's license. Therefore, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss claim is DENIED.”
Count II (Unlawful Exclusion): “Plaintiffs have failed to assert a claim against CDI for unlawful exclusion under the common law. Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' unlawful exclusion claims is GRANTED.”
Counts III-IV (Antitrust Claims): “Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim for either of the alleged antitrust claims. The Court will not address additional arguments asserted by the parties in their briefs because Plaintiffs do not have standing to assert antitrust claims as alleged. Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' antitrust claims is GRANTED.”
Counts V-VI (Tortious Interference Claims): “Plaintiffs' tortious interference claims cannot succeed because CDI exercised legitimate contract rights…. Baffert violated the terms of the Rules and Conditions for Racing and Training, which prompted CDI's suspension. CDI was within its rights to suspend Baffert even if doing so harmed ongoing or prospective business relationships between Baffert and horse owners seeking his services….Therefore, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' tortious interference claims is GRANTED.”
KHRC Suspension 'Not an Issue'
After crossing the finish wire first in the 2021 Derby, Medina Spirit tested positive for the Class C drug betamethasone, which Baffert later asserted was introduced into the colt's system by way of a salve to heal a skin rash.
Medina Spirit collapsed and died after a workout at Santa Anita in December 2021. He was posthumously disqualified from the Derby by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) in February 2022. Baffert's appeal on that matter (and the suspension he has already served but wants cleared from his record) is pending.
Jennings also noted within her ruling that during hearings on Feb. 2 and 3, both parties “spent a great deal of time discussing the merits of claims before the KHRC, which are not at issue here.”
She wrote that, “as the Court instructed at the beginning of the hearing on Feb. 3, whether Plaintiffs violated the KHRC rules and regulations is irrelevant. The Court will only examine whether Defendants acted within their rights to suspend Plaintiffs pursuant to federal and state law or any contracts between the parties. Therefore, the Court will not decide whether Plaintiffs violated KHRC rules and regulations by treating Medina Spirit with betamethasone because this issue is not before the Court.”
Additionally, in a separate Feb. 17 order, Jennings swatted down a Feb. 10 motion made by Baffert that asked for the judge to recuse herself from the case.
According to court documents, the stated reason for that recusal motion was that legislative lobbying efforts conducted by the judge's husband for two racing industry clients (The Jockey Club and The Stronach Group) allegedly created a conflict of interest for Rebecca Jennings in adjudicating Baffert's case.
“I have no personal bias or prejudice against any party to this litigation and I have no extrajudicial knowledge about the facts or circumstances of this case or the subject matter of this litigation,” Jennings wrote in denying the recusal motion.
“Additionally, neither I nor any member of my family has any financial interest in any of the parties or the outcome of this litigation. And, after a deep search of the law and review of all briefings, I have found no statutory or other reason for disqualification in the case before the Court and cannot recuse,” Jennings wrote.
Brewster told TDN he will be mulling legal responses based on whether it was appropriate for Jennings to issue the orders that came out on Friday in light of the pending recusal motion.
“I can tell you now that our motion to disqualify her was made in good faith, and with utmost respect for the court system,” Brewster said. “So the next thing is we have to consider the grounds for not granting our motion for recusal, and then determine whether her continued ruling somehow was not authorized [based on] the fact that she was under this recusal motion.”
“Again, we have the utmost respect [for] any judge who makes in to [a federal] position. But all parties are entitled to a clear appearance of no bias.”