By T. D. Thornton
On the same afternoon that Churchill Downs took entries for the GI Kentucky Derby that included two horses formerly trained by barred trainer Bob Baffert, the gaming corporation that controls the Derby asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit Baffert had filed Feb. 28 attempt to get his private-property banishment by Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI), overturned.
Back on Apr. 11, the same federal judge in United States District Court (Western District of Kentucky) had permitted Baffert to withdraw his motion for a preliminary injunction to allow him to enter horses in this year's Derby when it became evident that such a motion, even if successful, would have been trumped by a Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) equine drug suspension that Baffert is currently serving.
But because the original lawsuit was also intended to fight CDI's two-year banishment of Baffert that runs through the 2023 Derby, the suit remains active despite the withdrawal of the motion for injunction. So on May 2, CDI took the next logical legal step by asking for the suit as a whole to be thrown out.
“This lawsuit is as meritless as all of his others,” CDI stated in its dismissal motion, alluding to court cases Baffert has initiated against the New York Racing Association (NYRA) and the KHRC. “Baffert's claims fail as a matter of law, and this Court should dismiss his complaint in its entirety.”
Baffert's flurry of litigation over the past year stems from now-deceased Medina Spirit testing positive for betamethasone after winning the 2021 Derby, plus Baffert's recent history of equine drug positives in major races.
Last May CDI barred Baffert from its properties. The New York Racing Association (NYRA) has also sought to ban the Hall of Fame trainer, but a federal judge has ruled Baffert can still race in New York while an internal NYRA exclusion hearing process plays out. Baffert also recently failed in Kentucky courts to get a stay of his 90-day suspension and $7,500 fine while those KHRC penalties go through a separate appeals process.
The Feb. 28 complaint alleged that CDI and its corporate officers and executives have, “without legal authority and without any notice or opportunity to be heard, 'suspended' Baffert's right to race horses on CDI properties, precluding him from practicing his chosen profession or using his license on CDI properties. CDI's actions also constitute an unlawful restraint on trade.”
CDI begged to differ in its May 2 dismissal motion.
“Whatever his theory may be, Baffert is wrong in contending that CDI had no right to exclude him,” the court document stated, noting that legal precedents have already established that Churchill Downs is “a private facility” that may “exclude whomever it desire[s] from the track.”
CDI laid out four specific reasons for the suit to be tossed out.
“First, the due process claim fails because CDI is a private corporation, the individual defendants are not government officials, and no one violated Baffert's rights in any event…
“Second, the 'unlawful exclusion' claim fails because Kentucky has never recognized a standalone tort of unlawful exclusion. Nor can there be tort liability where, as here, the tort claim is not independent of the parties' contractual duties. CDI has a well-settled common law and contractual right to exclude from its property and its races repeat offenders like Baffert who endanger the safety of horses and jockeys, and threaten the integrity of the sport and CDI's signature events.
“Third, the antitrust claims fail because Baffert does not allege antitrust injury. His argument is that CDI's suspension injured him; he does not plausibly allege that the suspension harmed competition in a commercial market–the type of injury the antitrust laws were intended to prevent. His claim of a conspiracy to restrain trade fails because he has not alleged an actionable conspiracy…
“Fourth, the tortious interference claims fail because it is well-settled Kentucky law that exercising rights under a contract–as CDI indisputably did here when it suspended Baffert–cannot give rise to such claims. Baffert also failed to allege facts that plausibly show Defendants acted with malice.
“This lawsuit is nothing more than Baffert's latest attempt to dodge accountability for his wrongful actions,” CDI summed up. “The Court should dismiss his complaint with prejudice.”