By T. D. Thornton
In an attempt to rein in an already cumbersome litigation process in the Bob Baffert vs. New York Racing Association (NYRA) lawsuit, the federal judge in charge of the case ordered Tuesday that the Hall of Fame trainer will be allowed to amend his initial June 14 civil complaint that alleged NYRA violated his constitutional right to due process by trying to bar him over his history of equine medication violations.
Baffert's desire to amend his complaint stems from NYRA summoning him to a hearing back in September to adjudicate new “detrimental conduct” charges that NYRA levied against him.
Judge Carol Bagley Amon of United States District Court (Eastern District of New York) told both parties in a telephonic court conference Nov. 9 that if she didn't allow Baffert to amend his complaint, it is likely that he would simply file a new, separate lawsuit to get his allegations about the exclusion hearing ruled upon in court.
“I'm taking a practical approach to this, which is I think it makes sense to have the plaintiff file an amended complaint, adding whatever new allegations that plaintiff intends to make,” Amon said. “And then to have NYRA move against the amended complaint. I think that's the most expeditious way to handle it and will require the least amount of–or the least duplication of–effort.
“I understand that NYRA would want to argue that [Baffert] shouldn't file the complaint because filing it would be futile [in NYRA's opinion],” Amon continued. “But quite frankly, plaintiff could bring this as a new complaint if he were so inclined and raise the charges that way.”
The initial lawsuit was triggered by NYRA's banishment of the seven-time GI Kentucky Derby-winning trainer back on May 17, which came 16 days after the Baffert-trained Medina Spirit (Protonico) tested positive for a betamethasone overage while winning the Derby.
That case has still not resulted in any Kentucky ruling against Baffert. But in the 12 months prior to Medina Spirit's positive, four other Baffert trainees also tested positive for medication overages, two of them in Grade I stakes.
On July 14, the court granted Baffert a preliminary injunction that allowed him to race at New York's premier tracks until the lawsuit was adjudicated in full.
But Amon also wrote in that ruling four months ago that “Baffert should have been given notice of all of the reasons that NYRA intended to suspend him….[The] benefits of providing notice and a pre-suspension hearing would likely have been substantial.”
In the wake of that court decision, NYRA drafted a new set of procedures for holding hearings and issuing determinations designed to suspend licensees who engage in injurious conduct.
After those rules were made public, NYRA, on Sept. 10, wrote a letter summoning Baffert to appear at a videoconference hearing. That hearing date was pushed back, but his legal team has subsequently participated in a scheduling conference that set the date for the hearing to commence Jan. 24, 2022.
W. Craig Robertson, the lead attorney on Baffert's legal team, wrote in an Oct. 21 letter to the judge that, “The rules and procedures which NYRA has concocted for Baffert were all created after the fact. None of the 'rules' which NYRA now seeks to enforce were in place at the time that Baffert engaged in the conduct which NYRA contends is improper.”
Attorney Henry Greenberg, representing NYRA, fired back four days later with a response letter to the judge that stated, “NYRA will oppose such motion as futile for multiple reasons, including because Plaintiff's proposed amendments are not ripe given his failure to exhaust administrative remedies…and the meritless nature of the proposed amendments.”
Greenberg continued: “Plaintiff's speculation that NYRA created its Hearing Rules and Procedures to target him is misguided given that NYRA is following these same rules and procedures in prosecuting charges brought against another individual [Marcus Vitali] NYRA seeks to exclude from its racetracks…. Plaintiff's argument that he had no notice of the conduct prohibited by NYRA likewise fails given that common law has long recognized the standards and interests NYRA intends to uphold.”
Baffert must file his amended complaint by Nov. 19. NYRA has to file its motion to dismiss it by Dec. 3. The court will hear arguments from both sides Jan. 6, which will be only 18 days before the start date for the NYRA exclusion hearing that Baffert doesn't want to happen.