Baffert Should Be Allowed To Run in Breeders' Cup

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Bob Baffert | Horsephotos

The Week In Review, by Bill Finley

The Breeders' Cup announced Saturday that it had begun a review process to determine whether or not trainer Bob Baffert will be allowed to compete in this year's championship event. The outcome of that review is pending.

“The Breeders' Cup Board has commenced a review process as to whether Bob Baffert will be permitted to participate in this year's Breeders' Cup World Championships,” read a statement from the Breeders' Cup. “The process will include an opportunity for Mr. Baffert to present his case and will conclude in advance of pre-entry for the 2021 World Championships.”

The statement came shortly after a Breeders' Cup Board of Directors meeting was held Friday. No doubt, Baffert's status was brought up at the meeting. The Breeders' Cup said it has no further comment at this time.

By now, you all know the story. Baffert had five drug positives over a one-year period, including one in the GI Kentucky Derby, where race winner Medina Spirit (Protonico) tested positive for betamethasone. That led Churchill Downs to issue a two-year suspension, which, if not overturned, will keep him from entering in the 2022 and 2023 Derbies, as well as the GI Kentucky Oaks and all other Churchill stakes races. The New York Racing Association has also taken steps to ban Baffert. Other tracks, including Santa Anita, Pimlico, Monmouth and Del Mar have said that Baffert is welcome

Now, the Breeders' Cup will have its say.

There are no easy answers when it comes to Baffert and his situation, but the Breeders' Cup would be doing the wrong thing if it decides the Hall of Fame trainer will not be allowed to enter horses at this year's event.

For one thing, it's too late. If the Breeders' Cup was going to exclude Baffert, it needed to do so shortly after the Medina Spirit positive became public. That's what Churchill and NYRA did. For the most part, nothing has changed since the Derby and there's no reason why a decision couldn't have been made back in May or early June. Now, the clock is ticking, there are fewer than seven weeks until the Breeders' Cup begins and the Breeders' Cup has not said when it will make its decision regarding Baffert. While there's little sympathy in the industry for Baffert's owners, it would be unfair to them to make them switch trainers this close to the event.

And if you want to ban him, be prepared for a court fight that you will probably lose. Baffert and his lawyers have already taken on NYRA and won an early round in their fight against them. To get an injunction that would, at least temporarily, overturn a Breeders' Cup ban probably wouldn't be that hard to accomplish.

But the most important question is this: Does he deserve a Breeders' Cup ban?

While perhaps sounding like a Baffert apologist, which might be an unpopular stance to take, banning him from the Breeders' Cup would be a case of piling on. Yes, he deserves some punishment for all the positives. It's inexcusable for a trainer to have so many in such a short period of time and when you factor in that Baffert has been the face of racing for all these many years, the offense looks all the more serious. This is a sport that has been knocked around pretty good over the last three years or so and all the black eyes have taken quite a toll. Baffert threw gasoline on all the sport's problems.

Still, the punishment is supposed to fit the crime.

What Churchill has done to Baffert will seriously impact his career over the next two years. Not only can't he run in the next two Derbies, but horses he trains will not be eligible to pick up Derby points in the preps. It hasn't happened yet, but there's sure to be a mass exodus from his barn, as no owner with a serious Derby or Oaks candidate will leave their horse in a stable ineligible for those races and not eligible for qualifying points. Expect horses to start going elsewhere early next year. Then there's the potential of a ban at NYRA, which if successful, will keep him out of the GI Belmont S., the GI Travers S. and the dozens of other major races run in New York. That would mean even more horses lost.

That's an awful big bite for a trainer who has been caught only with overages of therapeutic medications. Betamethasone is not a performance-enhancer per se, and neither are the other drugs involved when it comes to the Baffert positives. This is not at all comparable to the Jason Servis-Jorge Navarro situation and all its ugliness.

To have penalized Baffert is fine. But don't keep him out of the Breeders' Cup. At some point, enough is enough.

Europeans Dominate Again…

Walton Street (GB) (Cape Cross {Ire}) is a nice-enough horse, but far from the brightest star in the Charlie Appleby barn. A 7-year-old gelding, he had two wins this year in Dubai before resurfacing last month in Germany, where he finished third in the G1 Longines Grosser Preis von Berlin. Desert Encounter (Ire) (Halling) is a 9-year-old gelding who hadn't won a race in two years. The winner of the Canadian International in 2018 and 2019, his best days seemed to be well behind him.

But when these two finished first and second in Saturday's GI Pattison Canadian International S. at Woodbine, no one should have been surprised. They were the only two European-based horses in the race, and this has been a year where the foreign horses have wiped the floor with their North American counterparts.

About 10 minutes after the Canadian International, Appleby struck again. His 3-year-old gelding Yibir (GB) (Dubawi {Ire}) won the $1-million Jockey Club Derby Invitational S. at Belmont Park. He was coming off a win in the GII Sky Bet Great Voltigeur S. at York in England. Yibir is a top horse, but no match for stablemates like G1 Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby and G1 Cazoo St Leger S. winner Hurricane Lane (Ire) (Frankel {GB}) or G1 Cazoo Derby and G1 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth QIPCO S. winner Adayar (Ire) (Frankel {GB}). The second string came through again.

European grass horses are supposed to be better than U.S. grass horses. Our best horses run on the dirt and their best horses race on the grass. But, based on the results of this year's grass racing over here, never has the gap been so big. European horses with modest credentials keep coming here and winning rich, important races.

Appleby and the powerful Godolphin Stable has led the way. He first showed up on June 5 and finished one-two in the GI Longines Just a Game S. with Althiqa (GB) (Dark Angel {Ire}) and Summer Romance (Ire) (Kingman {GB}). Six weeks later, the same pair finished first and second again in the GI Diana S. Althiqa, who has not started since the Diana, had won a Group 2 in Dubai and a listed stakes in France. Appleby has had six stakes wins in the North America this year and finished one-two in two Grade I's. After Sunday's action, he has five Grade I wins and the Jockey Club Derby is not a Grade I only because this was just its second running.

Aidan O'Brien also has three Grade I wins on this side of the Atlantic. He won the GI Belmont Derby Invitational with Bolshoi Ballet (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}). His Santa Barbara (Ire) (Camelot {GB}) won the GI Belmont Oaks Invitational and the GI Beverly D. S. He didn't miss by much when Japan (GB) (Galileo {Ire}) was second, beaten a neck, in the GI Sword Dancer S. at Saratoga. They're all very good horses, but don't have the star power of some of their stablemates.

O'Brien's son, Joseph, has also had a remarkable year here. His Baron Samedi (GB) (Harbour Watch {Ire}) won the GII Belmont Gold Cup S. and he won the GI Saratoga Derby Invitational with State of Rest (Ire) (Starspangledbanner {Aus}). Perhaps more so than any other horse, State of Rest tells the story of what has been happening this year. Prior to his arrival in Saratoga, he had won just once and was coming off a third-place finish in a listed stakes at the Curragh. He did not look like Grade I material.

After the U.S.-based 2-year-old grass horses held their own on Breeders' Cup Friday last year, the Saturday grass races were dominated by the Europeans. They won all four, which included a one-two-three sweep of the GI Breeders' Cup Mile by Aidan O'Brien. The race was won by 73-1 shot Order of Australia (Ire) (Australia {GB}).

For this year's Breeders' Cup, the American contingent looks particularly weak. The best U.S.-based grass horse appears to be Domestic Spending (GB) (Kingman {GB}). He's won a pair of Grade I races this year for Chad Brown, but had to settle for second last time out in the GI Mr. D. S. at Arlington. Beyond Domestic Spending, the list is thin.

Come Breeders' Cup weekend, it could be a long couple of afternoons for the U.S. grass horses.

Mejia Deserves His Punishment…

The Monmouth stewards didn't show an ounce of mercy toward Tomas Mejia, who was hit with a 10-year suspension for carrying a battery in a race earlier this month at Monmouth. They also recommended that the New Jersey Racing Commission take away his license permanently. Either way, at least in this country, Mejia's career is likely over. A 26-year-old journeyman who has never won more than 51 races in a year who now has this on his record, he's not going to be able to launch any kind of comeback 10 years from now.

Using a battery on a horse is despicable and it is cruel and there must be zero tolerance for it. It's hard to imagine that Mejia was the only one who had used one during the Monmouth meet, but there's no going back. If other jockeys had used one, they probably have gotten away with it. The New Jersey racing season is almost over, but let's hope that management and the New Jersey Racing Commission will do everything in its power going forward to make sure this never happens again. That should mean frequent shakedowns at the gate.

The 10-year suspension is believed to be the stiffest ever handed down to a jockey for a battery and a lifetime ban by the commission would be unprecedented. But it was the right call. Let's hope that the Monmouth stewards have established a template going forward for others. Ten years should be the minimum penalty for anyone caught with a battery. Better yet, use a battery and you should never be permitted to ride in a race again.

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