By Bill Finley
A three-member panel assigned with the task of deciding whether or not the New York Racing Association was justified in punishing Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert announced its decision late Thursday afternoon, issuing a one-year suspension from the NYRA tracks, effective immediately.
In April, a hearing officer recommended that Baffert be suspended for two years, so Thursday's decision was not a complete loss for the embattled trainer.
After a federal judge ordered that NYRA could not impose a ban on Baffert without affording the trainer due process, a hearing was held in January in which the racing association stated its case for suspending the trainer. The hearing officer was O. Peter Sherwood, a retired New York Supreme Court justice, who turned over his findings to the panel.
The process began in September, 2021 when NYRA delivered a statement of charges to Baffert alleging that he had engaged in conduct detrimental to the best interests of the sport of Thoroughbred racing, conduct that was potentially injurious to the health or safety of horses or riders. The statement of charges was an offshoot of Medina Spirit (Protonico) testing positive for betamethasone in the 2021 GI Kentucky Derby, along with other medication violations Baffert had been charged with within a relatively short time frame.
“This was an impartial and deliberative process that has resulted in a lengthy suspension of the sport's most prominent trainer,” Dave O'Rourke, NYRA President & CEO, said in a statement. “However, this is not simply about Bob Baffert or any one individual but about protecting the integrity of the sport here in New York. Today's decision advances that goal.”
Reacting to the decision, Baffert's attorney Clark Brewster lashed out at the panel and accused NYRA Board members of taking action against Baffert because they are jealous of his success.
“From reading the NYRA-selected panel's decision it is obvious they tried hard to mitigate and generalize the nonsensical and contradictory ramblings of the Peter Sherwood order, but still they capitulated to the will of a few NYRA Board members who are blindly driven by jealousy and self interest to destroy Bob,” Brewster said in a text message.
The panel called allegations that NYRA Board Members took action against Baffert for competitive reasons “reckless.”
The panel credited Baffert with 59 days he served while temporarily suspended before the court made its ruling regarding due process. He was also credited for the 90-day suspension issued by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and reciprocally honored by the New York State Gaming Commission. He will become eligible to compete again at the New York tracks on Jan. 25, 2023.
Baffert is also currently serving a suspension from Churchill Downs, which banned the trainer for two years.
Brewster had requested any penalty issued to Baffert be stayed pending an administrative and judicial review. The panel denied that request, stating that the decision of the hearing panel is “final” and takes effect “immediately.” Referring to Rule 16(f), the panel's report concluded that “there shall be no administrative appeal within NYRA of the Panel's final decision.”
The panel did not blindly agree with all of Sherwood's charges. It noted that the retired judge had written that Baffert was guilty of multiple instances of doping. The panel found problem with the word doping, noting that Baffert wasn't necessarily charged with using performance-enhancing substances. It also took exception to Sherwood's charge that “Baffert has engaged in a pattern and practice of unlawful conduct that has no parallel in the modern history of Thoroughbred racing.”
“There is scant support in the record for such a statement,” the panelist's report read.
In an effort to explain why the suspension was reduced to one year, the panel asserted that Sherwood “appears to have relied principally on a decision by Churchill Downs Inc. to ban Baffert through the 2023 Kentucky Derby to arrive at his recommendation for a two-year ban by NYRA.” The panel noted that Churchill, a private company that does not necessarily have to hold a hearing for someone it attempts to suspend, never did hold a hearing regarding Baffert's two-year suspension. Had it done so, the panel was not convinced that a hearing officer would have issued such a lengthy suspension.
The panel consisted of attorney John J. Carusone Jr., William Alempijevic and Rev. Humberto Chavez. Carusone is an attorney with the firm Carusone & Carusone in Saratoga Springs, New York. Alempijevic is the Executive Director of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. Chavez heads the New York Race Track Chaplaincy of America (RTCNY).
Though Baffert is based in California, he normally makes a few starts a year in Saratoga and is always eligible to have a candidate in the GI Belmont S. He has won the Belmont three times.