By Bill Finley
It was another week when the Bob Baffert-NYRA saga again dominated the headlines, with both sides killing a lot of trees with their voluminous and seemingly never ending legal filings. At times it was mind numbing, and the laymen among us are having a hard time discerning what is important, what is not, whether or not there are any precedents to consider and which side appears to be winning a fight that grows more acrimonious by the day.
After Medina Spirit (Protonico) tested positive for betamethasone in the GI Kentucky Derby, NYRA decided to ban Baffert. He is not allowed to stable at or run at the NYRA tracks. With Saratoga upon us, that could not have come at a worse time for the Hall of Fame trainer. He has already lost a number of horses to other trainers, their owners not willing to pass on the chance to run at the Saratoga meet. Some of the many questions surrounding the ban may be answered Monday when both sides will appear at the U.S. District courthouse in Brooklyn, where it will be decided whether or not Baffert will be granted a restraining order that would allow him to run in New York…at least temporarily.
The Baffert team will argue that his due process rights have been violated and that NYRA does not have the authority to suspend Baffert's license under New York law. Only the New York Gaming Commission can do that, they will claim. And the Gaming Commission has taken no action to date against the trainer. Both points are important. Can NYRA, at its discretion, just throw someone out? And can it do so without offering the individual a hearing beforehand?
The right of a racetrack to exclude someone has been argued back and forth over the years and the result has not been a clear-cut, definitive answer. The question grows even more complicated when NYRA is involved because of its status as a “quasi” state agency. The courts have consistently ruled that privately owned racetracks have the right to bar someone. That's probably why Baffert has, so far, taken no action against Churchill Downs to have its ban overturned.
It will be up to Judge Carol Bagley Amon to decide whether or not NYRA has the legal right to exclude someone. No doubt, Baffert's team will steer her toward the 40-year-old story of a jockey, Larry Saumell, who was run out of the New York tracks by NYRA after he was allegedly caught carrying a battery. While there have been other cases over the years that dealt with NYRA's rights when it comes to excluding someone, the Saumell case would seem to be the most relevant to the Baffert case.
On July 13,1981, Saumell was denied access to Belmont Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga after a NYRA investigation determined that the jockey was in possession of a battery before the start of a June 22 race. NYRA took the infraction so seriously that it turned the case over to the Nassau County District Attorney's office.
“You work all your life to do something, and bang–in three seconds it can be taken away from you,” Saumell, who never argued that he was not in possession of a battery, told Newsday in 1981.
“We have a separate responsibility to do what we have to do, to protect the integrity of racing,” NYRA's head of security John Keenan told Newsday, sounding very much like his counterparts 40 years later. “It's our responsibility to do what we have to do to protect the integrity of racing.”
Saumell, his career in jeopardy, hired firebrand lawyer Joseph Faraldo, and fought back. Ten days after he was banned, Saumell won an appeal, a state court vacating a stay that had been obtained by NYRA against Saumell. He was immediately reinstated. The court ruled that while NYRA had a responsibility to protect the betting public only the New York State Racing and Wagering Board (the precursor to the Gaming Commission) could revoke a license. In making the decision, the court ruled that “…any further attempt by NYRA to exclude the petitioner (Larry Saumell) would infringe on the Board's authority to license horsemen.”
The case went back and forth in the courts while Saumell continued to ride. On Feb. 23, 1981, the jockey received the news he had been waiting for–an appeals court ruled firmly in his favor. NYRA's quest to keep him out was all but over.
This time the basis for the ruling was that NYRA had violated Saumell's civil rights by not granting him a hearing and, therefore, it had to reinstate him.
The ruling read: “The common-law right of the New York Racing Association (NYRA) to exclude persons from its premises includes the right when there is reasonable cause to believe a jockey licensed by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board (the Board) guilty of misconduct to deny him access. In doing so, however, NYRA must conform to the requirements of due process.”
Baffert's lawyers have made the same argument as he has yet to have a hearing before NYRA stewards or officials.
“First, Baffert was not afforded any due process before he was summarily suspended by NYRA,” Baffert's team wrote in a filing last week. “He was given no notice of any charges against him and no opportunity to be heard. Instead, he received a letter stating that he was immediately suspended and would not be permitted to race any horses in New York.”
With NYRA rebuffed, Saumell continued to ride throughout the legal proceedings. It's hard to say how the affair affected his career. He was only 22 at the time and was winning races on the New York circuit, but his career leveled off. He never became a star and instead finished out his career riding, not in New York, but in New Jersey, Maryland, Florida and Kentucky. He last rode in 1999 and, after he retired, he became a representative for the Jockeys' Guild. His biggest win came in the GII Pennsylvania Derby in 1988 and he had 2,098 total winners. Just 54, he died in 2011, his obituary in the Daily Racing Form not even mentioning his ban 30 years earlier.
When asked about the Saumell case, Baffert's lawyer Craig Robertson replied via text, saying: “That case has been referenced in the legal papers filed with the court. It is an important precedent and supports the contention that NYRA can't do what they're doing to Bob.”
Does the Saumell case mean that Baffert will win and the courts will rule that NYRA must reinstate him? That's hard to say. But 40 years ago NYRA tried to rule off a participant after a serious allegation, that he used a battery. And it didn't work.