A lawyer for Bob Baffert confirmed to Casino.org Monday night that the Hall of Fame thoroughbred trainer is considering a federal lawsuit against Churchill Downs Inc. The action is an effort to have his 3-year-olds eligible to run in this year’s Kentucky Derby.
Earlier Monday, The New York Times reported Baffert was considering a suit against the Louisville-based gaming company, and that Churchill Downs was considering a countersuit.
Baffert won his record-setting seventh Derby last year with Medina Spirit. However, a week after that win, a drug test showed levels of betamethasone in his system that were above state regulations. Betamethasone is an anti-inflammatory medication. After initially denying Medina Spirit ever received the drug, he would claim later that a veterinarian prescribed the use of an ointment with the substance to treat a rash.
Churchill Downs has suspended Baffert from all of its tracks across the country for two years as a result of the failed test. As part of that suspension, none of his horses would be eligible to run in the Derby or earn points from placing in any qualifying races during that time.
But the drug test is under an appeal, and that case with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) has been tied up in court as well. Last month, another lawyer for Baffert said further testing on the sample showed that the type of betamethasone in Medina Spirit’s system was the kind used in topical ointments. KHRC’s withdrawal guidelines provide recommendations on betamethasone injections.
It remains to be seen whether the commission or a court will appreciate the difference. If the failed drug test stands, Medina Spirit would be disqualified as the Derby winner, and Baffert would face punishment from the commission.
On Dec. 6, just days after the drug test statement, Medina Spirit died on the track at Santa Anita after a training session. An investigation into his death is still ongoing.
Draft Lawsuit Shared as Part of Discussions
Clark Brewster, the lawyer representing Baffert in the Churchill Downs case, told Casino.org that after the tests came back in the KHRC they made a “genuine overture” to Churchill Downs to discuss the matter. That included sending their lawyers a nearly 80-page draft lawsuit.
After some discussions were held last week, Brewster said both sides were set to meet again Monday afternoon. Then, right before that meeting was to start, Brewster said he was notified about The Times article.
Per The Times, Baffert seeks a court order that would allow his horses to enter Road to the Kentucky Derby races and receive points toward qualifying for the May 7 Derby. He also wants the court to block Churchill Downs from barring his horses into races at its Kentucky tracks.
Including its namesake flagship property, Churchill Downs owns four thoroughbred tracks. The others are Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., Fair Grounds in New Orleans, and Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa.
They’ve never done this,” Brewster said about Churchill Downs. “This is the first time ever. Now in the past, they say, ‘Well, we have the right to exclude people if they’re drunk or they’re a threat or come on premises and get into a fight.’ Certainly, but this isn’t that at all.”
Brewster also said the portrayal of Baffert in articles since the Medina Spirit failed test was announced has been unfair. His client has an “amazing” record, he said.
In a career spanning more than four decades, Baffert’s horses have failed drug tests at least 29 times. However, Brewster said that his client has entered 727 horses in Kentucky over the last 29 years. In that time, Brewster said only one horse – Gamine in the 2020 Kentucky Oaks – came back with a drug test violation.
Gamine was also found to have an excessive amount of betamethasone in her system, which Brewster said came from two injections 18 days out. State guidelines call for one injection no earlier than 14 days before a race.
The filly was stripped of her third-place finish in the 2020 Oaks and Baffert was fined $1,500 after waiving his right to appeal.
Key Derby Preps Start Next Month
Churchill Downs’ ban has already had some implications. Corniche, a colt trained by Baffert, won the American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita in October and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Del Mar a month later. Churchill awarded Derby points to top finishers in those races. But Corniche did not receive any.
Two other Baffert horses finished first and second in the Jan. 1 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. But Churchill Downs did not give Newgrange 10 points, nor Rockefeller four points for their finish.
If Corniche received the 30 points for winning his two races, he’d be firmly at the top of the current standings. Newgrange would also be near the top of the leaderboard.
However, the major races for Derby qualification do not begin for more than a month. Starting in mid-February, races will take place that offers 50 qualifying points for each winner. From March 26 to April 9, there are eight races where the winner gets 100 points.
Earning 50 points typically is enough to qualify for the Derby.
Brewster told Casino.org that he’d rather not file a lawsuit and hoped that the discussions could resolve the matter. However,
I’ve never seen a situation where a party wouldn’t even engage in any kind of dialogue, became truly intransigent,” Brewster said. “That makes no sense except that you feel like you’re omnipotent or all-powerful in some way.”
Churchill Downs was not the only entity to act after the Medina Spirit test. The New York Racing Association also banned Baffert. However, the trainer won an injunction in federal court after a judge ruled NYRA denied Baffert due process. NYRA has since scheduled a hearing that will take place on Jan. 24
Churchill Downs May Seek to Protect Itself
In a statement after The Times published its article, Churchill Downs Inc. said it was “committed to protecting the integrity and future” of the sport for all who participate. That includes the horses, fans, and bettors.
“No one is above the rules, including Mr. Baffert, and we remain intent on holding him accountable for his actions,” the company said.
Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen told The Times the potential lawsuit is a page from Baffert’s “well-worn playbook of obfuscating the facts, inventing excuses to explain positive drug tests, and attempting to blame others to avoid responsibility.”
Carstanjen added that Churchill is considering its own lawsuit in response.
“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.”
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