By T. D. Thornton
The New York Racing Association (NYRA) told a federal judge Wednesday that it shouldn't face “contempt of court” allegations initiated last week by trainer Bob Baffert because NYRA has been fully compliant with a July court order that–by NYRA's interpretation–should allow its scheduled hearing on Baffert's exclusion from its tracks to proceed.
NYRA is already defending itself in a federal lawsuit initiated by the Hall of Fame trainer with the well-publicized history of equine drug positives over whether or not NYRA violated Baffert's constitutional rights by trying to ban him outright without any type of hearing back on May 17.
On July 14, the United States District Court (Eastern District of New York) granted Baffert a preliminary injunction that allowed him to race at New York's three major tracks pending the resolution of his overall case.
While that ruling clearly allowed Baffert to start horses at Saratoga Race Course, Belmont Park and Aqueduct, NYRA additionally took the judge's order to mean the association could move forward with drafting a set of procedures for holding hearings that could 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 just such a videoconference hearing.
On Sept. 22, Baffert filed a motion asking a federal judge to hold NYRA in civil contempt for trying to schedule any sort of hearing that could once again bar him from participating at NYRA's tracks. That filing stated that, “NYRA seems to believe now that it can simply offer a sham hearing and get around the Court's ruling by creating rules after the fact.”
One week later, NYRA's Sept. 29 filing hit back at that assertion: “Plaintiff moves to hold NYRA in contempt for providing Plaintiff exactly what he argued he was entitled to in support of his motion for a preliminary injunction–notice and an opportunity to be heard.
“Plaintiff incorrectly asserts that the Notice of Hearing, Hearing Rules and Procedures, and Statement of Charges demonstrate that, 'NYRA's conduct is simply a repackaged version of the same action already enjoined,'” the filing continued. “What the Hearing Rules and Procedures and Statement of Charges actually show is a substantially different process that is now in place, which was not afforded in connection with the May 17 suspension that the Court enjoined.”
NYRA's filing continued: “Because NYRA at all times acted in good faith to comply with the Order, and Plaintiff has not demonstrated that the harsh tool of contempt should be wielded here, the Court should deny the requested relief. Indeed, NYRA's actions that are at issue were undertaken in compliance with the Order and provide Plaintiff what he asked for–a hearing during which he could present his side of the story…
“Plaintiff's speculation that NYRA created its Hearing Rules and Procedures to target him is incorrect,” the filing continued. “The Hearing Rules and Procedures are of general applicability and are designed to afford the process this Court deemed necessary in its Order.”
NYRA argued in its filing that it should neither be held in contempt nor have a cease and desist order levied against it prohibiting the association from taking any action to potentially suspend Baffert.
The filing contended that's “because Plaintiff has failed to meet his heavy burden to show any of the three elements for contempt: 1) a clear and unambiguous prohibition in the Order barring NYRA from establishing and utilizing a hearing process with respect to Plaintiff; 2) clear and convincing proof that NYRA violated the Order; and 3) evidence that NYRA has not diligently attempted to comply with the Order in a reasonable manner.”
Baffert had requested that the court “admonish NYRA for its behavior” and immediately order it to 1) Cease and desist from all conduct concerning or relating in any way to any suspension of Baffert until after the full conclusion of the case; 2) Pay a $5,000 fine for each day that it does not comply with the court's directives; 3) Reimburse Baffert for attorneys' fees and court costs related to the new motion for contempt.”
Again, NYRA disagreed.
“Finally, even if the Court were to find that NYRA's actions were inconsistent with the Order, Plaintiff should not be awarded attorneys' fees and costs as a consequence of NYRA's good faith attempt to comply with the Order,” the Sept. 29 filing summed up. “The Court likewise should not impose the daily fines that Plaintiff seeks because no harm has resulted from NYRA's actions and because such fines are unnecessary to ensure NYRA's continued compliance with its Order.”
Baffert's videoconference before a hearing officer was supposed to have taken place Sept. 27.
But exhibits that NYRA attached to its filing show emails from earlier this month in which Baffert's attorney requested more time. With the hearing officer's permission, that hearing date was pushed back to Oct. 11.
It was also revealed that Baffert will not be required to testify or participate in the video hearing on that date because this first session will be all about scheduling future dates and setting deadlines for things such as the filing of witness lists and evidence exhibits.