By T. D. Thornton
Trainer Bob Baffert and owner Amr Zedan filed motions with the Kentucky Court of Appeals on Thursday in an attempt to legally block a series of looming penalties related to the equine drug positive rulings of Medina Spirit in the 2021 GI Kentucky Derby.
The most severe of those sanctions is a 90-day suspension for Baffert that is set to start Apr. 4.
The Mar. 24 filing came barely 72 hours after a lower court rejected Baffert and Zedan's plea for a stay or temporary injunction that would have kept the suspension and a $7,500 fine for Baffert, plus the forfeiture of Zedan's purse winnings, from going into effect while the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) appeals process plays out.
The KHRC has a history of routinely granting stays while cases are under appeal, but it didn't in Baffert and Zedan's instance, which dates to now-deceased Medina Spirit's betamethasone positive in last year's Derby.
“Here, the KHRC has refused to follow standard procedure and stay the Stewards Rulings pending appeal,” court documents stated. “In fact, in its history, the KHRC has never denied a trainer's request to stay implementation of preliminary stewards penalties while those rulings are appealed. Never. Not once. Until now. This fact was recognized by the Franklin Circuit Court, but the Court erroneously refused to grant a stay… Absent a stay of the Stewards Rulings before April 4, 2022, the Plaintiffs will suffer immediate and irreparable harm.”
Separately on Thursday, Baffert publicly disclosed that four of his top Derby candidates are in the process of being transferred to other trainers so they can try and earn qualifying points and enter the Derby.
Even if Baffert prevails in this Court of Appeals attempt, he is still barred from having horses qualify for and run in the Derby based on a separate, private-party prohibition issued by the gaming corporation that owns Churchill Downs. But Baffert is also fighting that banishment in federal court and seeking a speedy ruling that could let him participate in the Derby while that litigation plays out.
Thursday's documents stated that the Franklin Circuit Court “abused its discretion in disregarding the immense and irreparable prejudice” to Baffert with regard to his pending suspension, offering four planks to that argument.
“First, the lower court failed to appreciate the purpose of the voluminous case precedent holding that missed professional sporting events are irreparable injuries for purposes
of temporary injective relief,” the documentation stated. “According to the Circuit Court, those cases are inapplicable because 'Baffert is not an athlete,' whose career is 'subject to a small window of eligibility or period of peak performance.'
“This is misguided even on the Court's own terms. Baffert is 69 years old; not unlike an ordinary professional athlete, Baffert's window of future opportunities is similarly limited…. There is no way to remediate Baffert's lost opportunity to participate in the prestigious races that define his reputation and the success of his career.”
The documentation continued: “Second, the lower court substantially erred in concluding that 'any harm that Baffert will suffer from not participating in the 2022 Triple Crown or other races during his suspension will result in monetary loss' and thus are not sufficiently irreparable injuries. [This mischaracterizes] the fact that money damages are typically completely quantifiable and thus, reflect adequate remedies on appeal…
“Baffert's income from racing is almost entirely linked to a horse's performance in a given race. There is simply no way to conclusively determine how his horses would have performed in the races taking place during his suspension. Missing out on the prestigious Triple Crown races (and many others) in 2022 is irreparable harm to a trainer like Baffert as the opportunity to compete in them can never be regained and the lost opportunity is not subject to remuneration,” the documentation stated.
The legal filings raised two other arguments related to the alleged abuse of discretion: That “the lower court similarly overlooks the extreme harm to Baffert's entire livelihood if [he is] forced to immediately serve the suspension,” and that the Circuit Court “abused its discretion in failing to recognize that forcing Baffert to immediately serve the suspension defeats the entire purpose of his appeal.”
The documentation summed up by alleging that “the Circuit Court misframed the issue and misunderstood the scope” of its own review.
“[Baffert and Zedan] are not, as the Circuit Court contended, attempting to 'force [the KHRC] to automatically issue stays.' Movants merely contend that when the KHRC departs from its universal practice; it must do so for valid reasons based on evidence on the record.
“In other words, the KHRC must apply the same standard that has been applied to every medication positive case to date,' the documentation stated.