Judge rejects Baffert stay but delays suspension to April 4
A Kentucky judge has denied Bob Baffert’s request to stay his 90-day suspension but delayed it until April 4 to allow his representatives to seek emergency relief through the state’s Court of Appeals.
Kentucky Horse Racing Commission stewards last month suspended Baffert for 90 days, fining him $7,500, and disqualified Medina Spirit for having the corticosteroid betamethasone in his system when he won the Kentucky Derby last year. Baffert’s appeal to racing officials was denied, but the suspension that was scheduled to begin March 8 was delayed pending a court hearing.
Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate said Monday that “the court understands the gravity of this ruling” on Baffert and will alleviate the impact by staying implementation of the suspension. He added, “However, absent relief from a reviewing court, the penalties imposed by Stewards Rulings 21-0009 and 21-0010 shall take effect on April 4, 2022.”
Baffert attorney Clark Brewster in a statement expressed disappointment in the court’s decision and said, “Given the importance of the matter, we intend to immediately appeal to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.”
Attorneys for Baffert have argued that the betamethasone in Medina Spirit’s system came from a topical ointment, rather than an injection, which is banned. Racing officials have said no matter the source, betamethasone is not allowed on race day.
If upheld, the suspension would begin at the tail end of the qualifying season for the Kentucky Derby scheduled for May 7 at Churchill Downs. It would effectively remove the Hall of Fame trainer from participating in the Triple Crown, which includes the Preakness on May 21 and Belmont Stakes on June 11.
Craig Robertson, another of Baffert’s lawyers, had argued in court last week that if Baffert was forced to serve his suspension now, “he’s never going to get those days back if he wins on appeal.”
Lawyers for the commission cited four medication violations by Baffert over the past year, and attorney Jennifer Wolsing said he “presents an elevated risk of re-offense.”
Wingate rejected Baffert’s claim of irreparable harm and said that unlike an athlete’s finite period of eligibility and performance, as a trainer he is more of a coach than an athlete. The judge wrote that the horses, as athletes, have that finite window of eligibility and performance.
Wingate also said the court was confident the suspension would not destroy Baffert’s career and noted the trainer’s intent to continue. Any harm from missing the Triple Crown or other races would be monetary and not irreparable under state law.
“Baffert’s track record speaks for itself,” the ruling stated.
Wingate also wrote that the appeals court’s ruling in a 2015 case against trainer H. Graham Motion makes clear that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has the power to establish regulations, and that the effect of a banned drug is relevant.
Baffert also has sued Churchill Downs in federal court, seeking to challenge his two-year suspension by the Louisville home of the Kentucky Derby.
Animal Wellness Action executive director Marty Irby applauded the Kentucky court’s decision and said in a statement that horse racing has been plagued “time and time again” by Baffert’s scandals.
Irby added: “Baffert has snubbed the rule of law and evaded the consequences of his actions for far too long – the Run for the Roses will be paved with more credibility than we’ve seen in many years if Baffert and his horses are not present.”
Racing officials in California, where Baffert is based, have said they will honor the suspension if it is upheld. Medina Spirit died on Dec. 6 of a heart attack following a workout at a Santa Anita track. A necropsy found no definitive cause for his death.
PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo also expressed relief with the decision, saying in a statement that horses still need to be protected from Baffert’s “experimental pharmacology.”
Guillermo added, “If Baffert is suspended, we hope he will use those 90 days to contemplate a permanent retirement from racing.”