Sports

Churchill Downs Draws a Hard Line With Bob Baffert

Bill Carstanjen, the chief executive of Churchill Downs, had a clear message to lawyers for Bob Baffert on Monday: We will see you in court.

With the Kentucky Derby approaching, Baffert has threatened to sue Churchill Downs and Carstanjen if the track in Louisville, Ky., does not lift the two-year ban he was given last May after last year’s winner, Medina Spirit, failed a drug test.

In a wide-ranging draft complaint obtained by The New York Times, Baffert says that his right to due process was violated by the ban and that he has been unlawfully excluded from Churchill Downs and America’s greatest race.

Baffert wants a preliminary injunction that would keep Churchill Downs from denying his horses entry into races there and at Turfway Park, in Florence, Ky., and from “prohibiting him from earning points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby,” according to the complaint that has yet to be filed. The document also demands that the company recognize qualifying points that his horses have already earned. Baffert also seeks millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages.

Carstanjen said the threatened case was “completely meritless.” He said that Churchill Downs Inc. is a private company and that on April 7, 2021, Baffert signed an agreement — as the track requires all horse trainers to do — that he would follow its conduct and medication rules.

Carstanjen emphasized that Baffert was a repeat offender. Medina Spirit tested positive for betamethasone, a corticosteroid. It is the same substance that was found in the Baffert-trained filly Gamine after she finished third in the 2020 Kentucky Oaks, a showcase for 3-year-old fillies at Churchill Downs. Baffert’s horses have failed 30 drug tests over four decades, including five in a recent 13-month period.

Last month, Medina Spirit died of an apparent heart attack after a timed workout. A necropsy is underway to determine more details about his death. A final report will be made public upon its conclusion.

“This threatened lawsuit is yet another tactic from Mr. Baffert’s well-worn playbook of obfuscating the facts, inventing excuses to explain positive drug tests and attempting to blame others to avoid responsibility for his own actions,” Carstanjen said.

He also did not rule out countersuing Baffert.

“We are considering any and all legal options available to us to set the record straight and ensure Mr. Baffert is held accountable for all the reputational damage he has caused us,” Carstanjen said. “The irony is not lost on us that despite all of his violations, he is the one threatening to file lawsuits claiming to be aggrieved.”

Baffert and his lawyer Clark Brewster were not immediately available for comment.

Churchill Downs is drawing a hard line against a man who has been a fixture there, signaling a major break in the relationship between the storied track and Baffert, a Hall of Fame trainer who has won the Derby seven times.

It comes at a time when the Triple Crown season is heating up and the quest for qualifying points to earn a spot in the Derby’s starting gate is getting urgent. Once more, the Baffert barn is loaded with talented 3-year-olds winning important races, but they are not earning qualifying points to compete on the first Saturday in May.

In the Sham Stakes on Jan. 1 at Santa Anita Park, the Baffert-trained colts Newgrange and Rockefeller ran first and second. Churchill Downs, however, has refused to award points to any horses trained by Baffert.

The Baffert camp had hoped to persuade Churchill Downs to negotiate a settlement, relieving his owners of having to give his horses to other trainers or risk missing the Kentucky Derby. The race is not only prestigious, but a male Derby winner increases his potential stallion value by tens of millions.

The death of Medina Spirit does not resolve whether his Derby victory will be allowed to stand. Baffert’s lawyers have challenged the test in federal courts, and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has yet to hold a hearing. At stake for the horse owner Amr Zedan is the Derby’s $1.8 million first-place check, which will be awarded to the owners of Mandaloun, the second-place finisher, if Medina Spirit’s victory is invalidated.

The trainer’s reputation and broader future in the sport are in the balance. This month, the New York Racing Association will seek a suspension of Baffert from its tracks before a hearing officer.

Carstanjen said the track’s rules were created for the safety and well-being of the horses and riders who compete.

“I continue to hold out hope that Mr. Baffert will finally take responsibility for what has occurred under his care and on his watch and we can move on to what we should really be focused on, namely hosting the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby in just a few short months,” he said. “Until then, we will fight to defend our rights, our reputation, the integrity of Churchill Downs and, most importantly, the safety of these horses.”

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