By Joe Drape
Horse trainer Bob Baffert should be barred from New York state racetracks for two years for conduct detrimental to thoroughbred racing, according to a recommendation issued earlier this week by a hearing officer.
Baffert is serving a 90-day suspension handed down by Kentucky regulators in the wake of a failed postrace drug test by Medina Spirit, who crossed the finish line first in last year’s Kentucky Derby but was subsequently disqualified.
Baffert had to turn his horses over to other trainers and will not participate in any of the Triple Crown races. He will remain a presence, however, as two of his top 3-year-olds are among the favorites: Messier and Taiba will be saddled by Tim Yakteen, a former Baffert assistant who is now on his own.
The New York Racing Association had sought to bar Baffert after regulators in three states found that his horses violated drug regulations over a span of 14 months and in seven different races.
In January, Judge O. Peter Sherwood, a retired New York state Supreme Court justice, heard testimony from Baffert as well as state racing authorities. His report determined that Baffert had “harmed the reputation and integrity of the sport, as well as public’s perception of the sport’s legitimacy.”
Sherwood wrote: “NYRA has reasonably concluded that it will not condone Baffert’s reckless practices, outrageous behavior and substance violations, each of which compromises the integrity of the sport. I conclude that NYRA has reasonably determined that he should be excluded from the racetracks for a lengthy period.”
The recommendation issued Wednesday now goes to a three-member panel, which can accept, reject or modify the two-year ban. If it is upheld as is, Baffert will be barred from competing at Belmont Park, Aqueduct Racetrack and Saratoga Race Course through July 2024.
“The recommendation from Peter Sherwood is nearly verbatim from the request of the NYRA lawyer,” said Clark Brewster, a lawyer for Baffert. “It will be contested until we ultimately find a neutral detached decision-maker that doesn’t rubber stamp the NYRA lawyer’s demands.”
The drug found in Medina Spirit’s system was betamethasone, a corticosteroid injected into joints to reduce pain and swelling. Baffert and his lawyers denied the colt was injected and said the drug was applied topically to treat a skin rash on Medina Spirit’s hind end.
Medina Spirit is only the third horse in the Derby’s 147-year history to be disqualified after finishing first. The colt’s owner, Amr Zedan, forfeited the $1.8 million first-place check, which went to the owner of second-place finisher Mandaloun, Juddmonte, the racing and breeding enterprise founded by Prince Khalid bin Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who died last year.
The ruling also erased Baffert’s seventh Kentucky Derby victory, which had been a record. In addition, Churchill Downs, which hosts the Derby, has barred Baffert from competing in the race next year as well.
The recommendation puts a new stain on a sport that has been troubled by doping problems and places Baffert’s reputation and future in the sport in jeopardy. Baffert, whose horses won the Triple Crown in 2015 and 2018, is thoroughbred horse racing’s most recognizable personality.
In his recommendation, Sherwood acknowledged the sport’s unsteady footing with the public and regulators’ efforts to remedy it.