Op/Ed: In Extending Baffert Ban, Churchill Downs Has Gone Too Far

Bob Baffert | Horsephotos

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With the Churchill Downs spring meet, which was moved over to Ellis Park, winding down, it appeared that Bob Baffert would soon be able to put the worst of his problems behind him. Baffert was serving a two-year suspension from Churchill Downs that came in the aftermath of Medina Spirit (Protonico) testing positive for a substance banned on race day after crossing the wire first in the 2021 GI Kentucky Derby. The suspension forced Baffert to sit out the 2022 and 2023 runnings of the Derby, the race that is at the core of his operation. It was a huge price to pay. The end of the meet on Sunday was supposed to mark the end of his ban and give Baffert the green light to run at Churchill, the other tracks owned by the company, and in the 2024 Derby.

Instead, Churchill announced Monday that Baffert's ban had been extended through the calendar year 2024. The decision, Churchill said in a statement, was “based on continued concerns regarding the threat to the safety and integrity of racing (Baffert) poses to CDI-owned racetracks.”

It was a stunning announcement, and not just because it was unexpected. To extend the ban, based on what are best described as flimsy accusations, is overkill. Baffert served his time, his punishment was up and it was time for him to prepare for his return to the Kentucky Derby next year. Justice was not served here.

Baffert's problems began before the 2021 Derby. He had accrued a number of positives over a short period, including one with Gamine (Into Mischief) in the 2020 GI Kentucky Oaks. When Medina Spirit tested positive for betamethasone, Churchill Downs clearly had had enough.

“Failure to comply with the rules and medication protocols jeopardizes the safety of the horses and jockeys, the integrity of our sport and the reputation of the Kentucky Derby and all who participate. Churchill Downs will not tolerate it,” read a statement issued by the track at the time.

A two-year suspension followed. Baffert's problems only mounted. He received a 90-day suspension from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and New York Racing Association banned him for what turned out to be a year.

Baffert vowed to fight the charges “tooth and nail,” and that's what he did. He and his legal team based their defense on the supposition that the betamethasone got into Medina Spirit's system, not through an injection. but through an ointment used to treat a skin rash. That, they contended, meant that the positive should have been classified differently than had it been an injection. That never seemed like a winning argument, as Churchill contended the betamethasone was in the horse's system, and that's all that mattered, and not how it got there. But Baffert kept fighting and contested every one of the suspensions as what seemed like a never-ending series of appeals worked their way through the legal system. As late as this year's GI Belmont S., Baffert was still out there stating his case. In an interview with Fox he said that if he had to do things over again regarding the Medina Spirit matter he wouldn't have done anything differently and that he didn't break any rules.

That apparently didn't go over well in the Churchill Downs corporate suites.

“Mr. Baffert continues to peddle a false narrative concerning the failed drug test of Medina Spirit at the 147th Kentucky Derby from which his horse was disqualified by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission in accordance with Kentucky law and regulations,” Monday's statement from Churchill read. “Prior to that race, Mr. Baffert signed an agreement with Churchill Downs which stated that he was responsible for understanding the rules of racing in Kentucky and that he would abide by them. The results of the tests clearly show that he did not comply, and his ongoing conduct reveals his continued disregard for the rules and regulations that ensure horse and jockey safety, as well as the integrity and fairness of the races conducted at our facilities. A trainer who is unwilling to accept responsibility for multiple drug test failures in our highest-profile races cannot be trusted to avoid future misconduct.”

There's no doubt that Baffert could have been handled the situation better and that a more prudent strategy would have been to shut up, take his lumps and wait patiently on the sidelines for his suspension to run its course. Had he done so, it's likely that Churchill Downs would have reinstated him Monday rather than extending the ban.

Whether Baffert “peddled a false narrative” or not, no one deserves to be penalized–and penalized severely–for exercising their right to defend themselves. And that's what Churchill has done to Baffert. Put in the same situation, most anyone would have done the same. By no means does anything he did constitute a case of “continued disregard for the rules and regulations that ensure horse and jockey safety…”

Another troubling aspect to this latest twist in the Baffert-Medina Spirit saga is that there's no telling what Churchill will do next. In its statement, Churchill gave no assurances that it will drop the ban at the end of 2024. Rather, it said that it will re-evaluate Baffert's status at the time. Do we know that they will ever welcome Baffert back at their tracks? We don't.

Baffert is far from perfect and he never deserved to get a free pass for what he did. He should have been far more careful, not only with Medina Spirit, but with all the horses he had that tested positive. Instead, and at the very least, he was sloppy and took his eye off the ball. How did he and his veterinarian not know that treating Medina Spirit with the ointment Otomax could result in a positive? All of this would have been an issue with any trainer in any race, but when it comes to the biggest name in racing and the sport's marquee race, you definitely have a problem.

So maybe Baffert deserved some of the penalties, especially the one handed down by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. But at some point, the crime and the punishment need to fit. We no longer need to debate whether or not Churchill Downs was justified in banning Baffert for two years. That ship has sailed. The relevant issue now is the extension of the ban and for what reason. Since the original suspension was announced, Baffert has done nothing wrong and has not violated any rules or had any more positives. He should be on his way back and that he's not suggests that Churchill Downs has a vendetta against him. It's not right.

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