Master of Excuses or Victim of Vendetta? Caustic Baffert/NYRA Hearing Closes

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Bob Baffert | Horsephotos

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Bob Baffert's five-day hearing on “detrimental conduct” charges levied by the New York Racing Association (NYRA) closed Friday with NYRA's attorney arguing that the Hall-of-Fame trainer has trashed the sport with such an unprecedented litany of medication violations that NYRA needs to be allowed to punish him, while Baffert's lawyer countered that the real extraordinary aspect of the case involves vendetta-based accusations that could result in draconian sanctions NYRA has never before attempted to impose upon any other trainer.

“Bob Baffert is not a cheater,” the trainer's attorney, W. Craig Robertson III, told hearing officer O. Peter Sherwood during the Jan. 28 proceeding. “NYRA used Bob Baffert when it was convenient for them…. Now, they want to kick him out, kick him to the curb…. Your honor, Mr. Baffert's career is in your hands. And that is not an exaggeration.”

NYRA's lawyer, Hank Greenberg, put his closing argument this way: “The statement of charges in this case charges [Baffert] with three violations: That he is a detriment to the sport of Thoroughbred racing, that he is a detriment to the safety of horses and jockeys, and that he is a detriment to NYRA and its business…. We respectfully submit that we have established our case, we have met our burden, and we respectfully urge you to recommend a lengthy suspension.”

The next step in the process is for the hearing officer to write up a report containing findings of fact, conclusions, and a recommended disposition. That report–there is no timetable for when it's due, according to rules that were created last year by NYRA–will then go to both parties and an adjudicatory panel appointed by NYRA's president and chief executive officer, David O'Rourke.

Patrick McKenna, NYRA's vice president of communications, told TDN via email Friday that members of that panel will be selected in the coming days. Asked who is eligible to be selected for it, he wrote, “Although there are no restrictions or required qualifications, individuals who possess an understanding of horse racing or its regulatory framework will be preferred.”

Within a week of the report's issuance, either party may submit written exceptions to it, and then the panel will have the discretion to adopt, modify or reject any or all of the hearing officer's report or recommended disposition. The panel will then issue a final decision that will include a statement setting forth the facts that form the basis of their decision, which shall take effect immediately and is not appealable to NYRA itself (although Baffert could once again bring the matter back before a court of law).

Although Baffert's legal team has previously protested the alleged “fait accompli” fairness of NYRA coming up with the rules for this hearing, its process, the charges, and the appointment of both the hearing officer and the deciding panel, a federal judge ruled last week that NYRA has a right to move ahead in that manner.

Because NYRA has the burden of proof, its legal team was permitted to start Friday's proceedings by offering both the first closing argument and then getting a rebuttal after Baffert's counsel had its turn. This last-at-bat arrangement that gave NYRA two turns to speak was unsuccessfully protested by Robertson as being “inappropriate” in the setting of a hearing, but Sherwood permitted it, presumably because that's how trials in court usually work.

Greenberg led off by accentuating how testimony this week had revealed that no witnesses could ever recall any other Thoroughbred trainer besides Baffert racking up six equine medication positives within a 14-month period, three of which occurred in Grade I stakes (the 2021 Kentucky Derby, the 2020 Kentucky Oaks, and the 2020 Arkansas Derby).

“What is presented to you by this case with these facts, your honor, are a rampage of positive drug tests and violations in frequency in number that has no precedent in the modern history of the sport,” Greenberg argued. “As a consequence of those violations, it is also undisputed and undisputable that there was an avalanche of extraordinary, negative, critical coverage of this great sport…. The consequences of that, the damage that it did to the reputation of the sport, is incalculable.”

Greenberg said testimony proved how NYRA goes to great lengths on a daily basis to make sure horses are fit and safe to race. He described the need to conduct pari-mutuel wagering anchored by integrity and brand equity as being the “lifeblood of existence for NYRA.”

Even if Baffert's recent history of equine drug violations occurred in other jurisdictions, it still “hurts NYRA” because of the “saga that was consuming the sport over that 14-month period as each violation came and each excuse was given,” Greenberg said.

“That harm, that fallout, was caused by one person–this person, your honor,” Greenberg said, referencing Baffert sitting off to the side in the Manhattan conference room, wearing a black sweater and black pandemic mask, his eyes and posture suggesting weariness at the end of a long week.

When Robertson had his turn at the podium, he underscored that NYRA was essentially attempting to re-litigate violations that had already been adjudicated by other regulatory bodies (none of which resulted in suspensions for Baffert), which he said is a violation of the legal principle res judicata.

“Your honor, when this matter started, I told you that NYRA was going to throw at you a bunch of inuendo, speculation and distortion. And that is exactly what they have done throughout this proceeding…” Robertson said. “At the beginning of this case, I said that vindictiveness, the bias, the unfairness of NYRA has no bounds. I should add to that the hypocrisy of NYRA has no bounds.”

By way of example, Robertson pointed out that NYRA never attempted to initiate any form of exclusion against two other high-profile trainers who had much more serious penalties handed down by New York regulators within the past decade.

One was Rick Dutrow, Jr., who in 2011 was suspended 10 years and fined $50,000 by the predecessor agency of the New York State Gaming Commission (NYSGC) after one of his Aqueduct winners tested positive for an opioid analgesic and syringes containing a painkiller and a sedative were found in Dutrow's stable office. Robertson said Dutrow was allowed to start 516 horses at NYRA tracks while he unsuccessfully tried to appeal that ruling, and NYRA never once independently tried to banish him.

The other is Linda Rice, who in 2021 was given a three-year license revocation and $50,000 fine for “improper and corrupt conduct” by the NYSGC for receiving race-entry information about rival horses from NYRA employees. She is currently still actively racing at NYRA tracks after obtaining a court injunction that allows her to participate while she appeals the NYSGC ruling, but, like Dutrow, NYRA never initiated its own separate exclusion against her.

“So when Mr. Greenberg, with all due respect, says there's no evidence of a vendetta, why absolutely there is. It's the first time they've ever done this to somebody,” Robertson said.

Greenberg, in his rebuttal, said Baffert shouldn't be one to complain about not getting his figurative day in court.

“There isn't a person in this country that gets more [due] process than Bob Baffert, from more courts and more tribunals. He's maxxing out on due process. I don't know that anyone's ever seen anything quite like the amount of process he gets by courts, administrative agencies, and [other ruling bodies],” Greenberg said.

Robertson told the hearing officer that it was significant how NYRA, during this past week of hearings, didn't produce a single witness to substantiate or even read through its own statement of charges. NYRA's testimony had instead largely relied upon various specialists and experts who tried to paint a wide-ranging picture of how NYRA was accountable to many state entities and how the magnitude of Baffert's alleged harms put its franchise at risk.

“What's worse, your honor, is that the individuals at NYRA who created these trumped-up charges didn't have the guts to come here and testify about them,” Robertson said. “Where are the NYRA board members? Where was NYRA's CEO?  Where [were] any NYRA executives to testify about this? If this matter is of such great importance to them and their business operations, where are those individuals?…They at least ought to have shown up and looked him in the eye and explained why they're taking their actions against him…

“On the other hand, Mr. Baffert showed up and stood up…” Robertson said, alluding to Baffert's half-day of testimony Jan. 27. “There wasn't a single question that he didn't answer in a genuine manner.”

In his rebuttal, Greenberg blasted Robertson for even bringing that up. He pointed out that in comparable settings in a courtroom, it is not customary for prosecutors to introduce then go through an accusatory document like a statement of charges paragraph by paragraph. Plus, he added, it wouldn't have been appropriate to call NYRA's CEO as a witness, because he's the same person who will be appointing the adjudicatory panel.

“The most Derbies [Baffert] has won is the 'Excuse Derby,'” Greenberg said. “Maybe it's [a groom] urinating in [a stall] or back patches on assistant trainers or drugs being planted and rewards being offered, or it's the veterinarian's fault. Again and again and again, excuses.”

Most meritless of all of the claims made during the heated week of hearings, Greenberg said, is the notion presented by Baffert's legal team that the trainer just wants to be treated like anyone else.

“No he doesn't…not even close….. Mr. Baffert does not want to be treated like everyone else,” Greenberg said, implying that Baffert wants–and gets–special treatment.

Robertson scoffed at that assertion.

“So yes, when I say I want Mr. Baffert to be treated like anybody else, absolutely,” Robertson said. “Because they've singled him out…and in the face of [other] individuals found guilty of serious, serious violations, NYRA says, 'Come on in, you're welcome at our tracks–unless your name is Bob Baffert.'”

Friday's closing arguments marked exactly 257 days since NYRA initially tried to rule off Baffert back on May 17, 2021, in the wake of now-deceased Medina Spirit's Derby drug positive for betamethasone.

Greenberg, near the end of the proceeding, answered his own rhetorical question about what NYRA would have expected with respect to Baffert's initial disclosure about that test result, alluding to the series of press conferences and media appearances in which Baffert at first denied treating Medina Spirit with betamethasone, then later claimed the positive was the result of applying a skin ointment he didn't know contained that drug.

“What would we [have expected from Baffert]?” Greenberg said. “That he honor the profession that has been so good to him. That he comport himself with dignity. That if he made a mistake, it's not a shameful thing to say, 'I'm sorry. I regret it. I will do better in the future.' That is all we would expect. That's all we could expect. And what we saw was the exact opposite.”

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