By Bill Finley
Attorneys in the hearing pitting NYRA vs. Bob Baffert made their opening statements Monday in what turned into a sparring session, with one side claiming NYRA Board members had a vendetta against Baffert and the other contending that the Hall of Fame trainer was responsible for a “rampage of doping violations” and is deserving of a temporary suspension.
The hearing, expected to last from three to five days, will determine whether or not NYRA's attempts to suspend Baffert over a rash of medication positives, including one in the 2021 GI Kentucky Derby, should be allowed. The hearing is being held before O. Peter Sherwood, a retired New York Supreme Court Justice. Baffert was present at the hearing.
Representing NYRA, attorney Hank Greenberg spoke first and zeroed in on the six medication violations Baffert accrued from July 27, 2019 through May 1, 2021, the date of last year's Derby, arguing that so many violations in such a short period of time was unprecedented.
“In the modern history of Thoroughbred racing, we can't find anyone who can recall anything like this by a prominent trainer,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg said that Baffert “took a wrecking ball over a two-year period to the integrity of the sport that was so good to him.”
He paid particular attention to Baffert's violations in the Derby, the GI Kentucky Oaks and the GI Arkansas Derby.
“In 2021 and 2020, the only Triple Crown he is responsible for is destroying three Grade I races,” Greenberg said.
After Baffert revealed that he had been informed by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission that Medina Spirit (Protonico) had tested positive for betamethasone, the trainer conducted several interviews, and Greenberg said he never once took responsibility while chalking his problems up to a matter of “cancel culture.”
“He gets on the Dan Patrick Show, he's on SportsCenter, he's on Fox and his attacks on everyone continue,” Greenberg said. “He says he doesn't believe in conspiracy theories and then he begins to float one. The damage that was done to Thoroughbred racing on these two days was incalculable.”
Greenberg's assertion that Baffert's actions were damaging, not just to NYRA, but to the sport of racing was a recurring theme during his opening argument. He said that NYRA has an obligation to act and to protect the sport and that was among the reasons it was taking action against Baffert. To do otherwise, he suggested, could mean that horse racing could go the same way as dog racing.
“What happens if those institutions do not give their best effort or do everything in their power to protect the safety of the animals, in this case horses?” he said. “What happens is what happened to greyhound racing, which you no longer see. It's what happened to the circus, where there were lion tamers. They don't exist anymore.”
Greenberg said that a lengthy suspension was in order so that, “NYRA can protect racing, protect the horse, protect the jockeys and protect itself.”
Representing Baffert, attorney Craig Robertson argued that Baffert's violations were not of a serious nature and that using terms like “doping” when it comes to Baffert were inaccurate and unfair.
“I suspect that you are going to hear a lot of inflammatory words from NYRA,” Robertson said. “You're going to hear the words 'doping' and 'illegal substances' and 'performance-enhancing.' Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything you're going to hear, all of the matters that Mr. Greenberg is going to discuss, involve lawful, allowable therapeutic medications that are used every day. Doping refers to the use of illegal substances such as anabolic steroids to gain a competitive advantage. There will be no evidence of any of that in this case.”
Regarding his argument that none of Baffert's violations were of a serious nature, Robertson questioned why NYRA would seek to ban the trainer. He suggested that certain influential members of the NYRA Board of Directors were out to get his client.
“Why are we here? The short answer is we shouldn't be here,” he said. “The long answer is the only reason we are here is that there are a handful of NYRA board members that can answer that question. They have some personal vendetta against Mr. Baffert. Do they not like him? Or perhaps since they own horses that race in New York, they are tired of Mr. Baffert coming to New York and beating them in New York races and they want to eliminate a competitor. Only they can answer that question. Despite the fact they want to ruin this Hall of Famer's career, we asked them to come here to appear, to testify, to tell us why they are doing this to Mr. Baffert. They refused to show up. It's a sad day in horse racing and a sad day when they are trying to punish this good man.”
Calling Baffert, “one of the most accomplished and respected individuals in all of racing,” Robertson asked Sherwood to decide “enough is enough” and prohibit NYRA from suspending the trainer.
The hearing began with the two sides arguing over what could and could not be admitted as evidence, including the Saturday Night Live lampoon of the trainer.
NYRA called its first witness, Rick Goodell, a lawyer who was formerly with the New York Gaming Commission. Goodell was largely asked to explain some of the more technical matters involved in the case, like what is lidocaine.