By Bill Finley
BROOKLYN–After an-hour-and-forty minute hearing Monday in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, in which lawyers representing Bob Baffert argued for a preliminary injunction that would allow the trainer to once again race at the New York Racing Association tracks, Judge Carol Bagley Amon did not render a decision and did not give a time frame for doing so.
The hearing came on the heels of a May 17 announcement from NYRA in which the racing organization said Baffert had been temporarily suspended, which meant he could not stable at the New York tracks or race there. The decision came shortly after Baffert announced that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission had informed him that Medina Spirit (Protonico) had tested positive for Betamethasone following his win in the GI Kentucky Derby. Baffert's legal team has argued that the NYRA ban is causing him irreparable harm for a number of reasons, among them the fact that he currently cannot race at Saratoga, one of the premier meets in the sport. Saratoga opens Thursday, July 15.
While much of the discussion among the lawyers and the judge rehashed details already made public, there was at least one new development. To date, NYRA has not given Baffert a hearing. Its lawyer, Henry Greenberg, revealed that after an Aug. 11 board meeting, NYRA will announce the length and terms of Baffert's suspension. Baffert will not be allowed to testify at the board meeting, but will be given the opportunity to be heard if he decides to appeal should NYRA go forward with its suspension.
Baffert's lawyer, Craig Robertson said his client is hoping to run at least three horses in Saratoga, Gamine (Into Mischief) in the GI Ketel One Ballerina Aug. 28, Illumination (Medaglia d'Oro) in the GI Longines Test S. August 7 and Fenway (Into Mischief) in an unspecified race. He has also seen a handful of owners, among them WinStar Farm, take horses eligible for major races in Saratoga away from him.
Flanked by three lawyers, Baffert appeared in court, but was not called on to testify.
Among the Baffert team, Robertson was clearly in charge and pounded away at what have become common themes from the trainer's defense. Robertson argued that, by issuing a suspension without affording Baffert a hearing, NYRA had deprived him of his due process rights. He also alleged that, in the case of Baffert, NYRA does not have the legal right to exclude the trainer.
“NYRA jumped the gun and decided to be judge, jury and executioner and suspend him,” Robertson said. “It was a case of fire, ready, aim. They acted outside of their authority and they violated his constitutional right to due process. He has a trainer's license issued by the New York Gaming Commission and that is a constitutionally protected property interest which cannot be taken away without due process. And there has been zero due process.”
While Judge Amon was careful not to tip her hand, she did pepper Greenberg with questions about NYRA's failure to give Baffert a hearing. Greenberg said one of the reasons NYRA did not do so was because Baffert never asked for one.
“He has to ask for one?” she asked incredulously.
Noting the importance of the Saratoga meet and the number of important stakes races run there, Robertson said that Baffert would be subject to irreparable harm if not allowed to race there.
“The opportunity to participate [at Saratoga] is vitally important. “Saratoga is the premier race meet in the country. Saratoga is the crown jewel, and has 43 graded stakes races. These races come around only once a year and if he is denied the opportunity to participate in them, he cannot get back that opportunity. That is irreparable harm.”
Greenberg zeroed in on integrity issues and a need for NYRA to suspend someone who had not only the Derby positive but four others within the course of a year. He said Baffert has smeared some of the biggest events in the sport, mentioning not only Medina Spirit in the Derby, but another Betamethasone positive, with Gamine in the GI Kentucky Oaks.
“There's never been anyone else who has managed to smear the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks and has had five violations within the span of a year,” Greenberg said. “That's what NYRA was presented with…He continues to race and all the while, the reputation of the sport suffers.”
Greenberg also attacked the way Baffert handled the dispute in its earliest days, which included an impromptu press conference at Churchill Downs and several media appearances in which he first maintained that Medina Spirit was never given Betamethasone. He later reversed course and said it likely got into the horse's system because it was an ingredient in an ointment used to deal with a skin problem.
“He never accepted responsibility or said he was sorry,” Greenberg said. “In a 14-minute interview, he attacked regulators, their integrity and their credibility and he said the horse was never given Betamesthasone.”
Greenberg also attacked Baffert's clumsy assertion that the Medina Spirit positive and the ensuing uproar was a matter of “cancel culture.”
Baffert, Robertson and Greenberg all declined to comment afterward. So did NYRA President and CEO Dave O'Rourke, who was in attendance along with a cadre of NYRA officials.