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Derby winner can’t halt suspension effort by NY racing body

The New York Racing Association is now giving Bob Baffert a chance to explain why Medina Spirit tested positive for a banned steroid following the iconic race at Churchill Downs.

BROOKLYN (CN) — Finding that the New York Racing Association had patched constitutional issues from the first go-around, a federal judge refused Tuesday to issue a contempt order against it as the trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit faces a protracted suspension battle.

The proceedings are separate from an effort underway in Kentucky after Bob Baffert's 3-year-old Prontico colt won the derby at Churchill Downs on May 1 only to test positive for betamethasone, a steroid used to reduce pain and inflammation that is forbidden in the weeks leading up to a race.

But the Empire State is home to another leg of the Triple Crown called the Belmont Stakes and is taking steps to ensure Baffert's exclusion while the dust settles.

Baffert challenged the New York ban in a June federal complaint, securing an injunction the following month from U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon, who said the racing association had violated due process rules by suspending Baffert without a hearing. 

In September, however, the association sent Baffert a second suspension letter — this time offering the decorated trainer with a 46-year career in thoroughbred racing a chance to defend himself. 

Amon backed the latest letter in a ruling from the bench on Tuesday, saying New York's new proceedings avoid the pitfalls of its last effort.

Attorney William Craig Robertson III appeared at the hearing on behalf of Baffert, who was not present for the hearing. He suggested that he would have preferred to stay out of Brooklyn federal court, too. 

“I do not want to be here, but NYRA’s actions have given me no choice,” said Robertson, of the Kentucky-based firm Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs. 

The lawyer argued that the May suspension was enjoined while the matter continued, and “this case has not reached conclusion yet.” 

Amon cut in: “But that suspension is no longer in effect.” 

Her previous order, the judge clarified, had not addressed the merits of the suspension — only the lack of due process leading up to it. 

“All I said was that your client was entitled, before someone tries to suspend him, to put forth his answers [to charges against him],” Amon said. 

Robertson contended that the racing association had put in place new rules allowing them to take action against Baffert, and was applying those ex post facto. 

“I think you’re missing the import of the court’s original order,” Amon replied.

Responding to the contempt motion, the racing association argued that it had given Baffert “exactly what he argued he was entitled to in support of his motion for a preliminary injunction — notice and an opportunity to be heard.” 

Attorney Henry Greenberg reiterated that point in court, and questioned Baffert’s choice of venue to challenge the second suspension proceeding. 

“A contempt proceeding is not an appropriate vehicle for him to raise challenges, procedural or substantive, to the hearing,” said Greenberg, of the firm Greenberg Traurig. 

Baffert read her ruling, finding that Baffert “has not proved convincingly” that the New York Racing Association violated her order from July. 

Amon, who had previously ruled that the racing association was a state actor, cited a recent Second Circuit decision in a lawsuit brought by a group of landlords challenging New York’s Covid-19 pandemic eviction ban. 

The appellate court in that case dismissed as moot the landlords’ due process argument, because the New York Legislature had already amended the law following a Supreme Court ruling that found an element of it — letting tenants self-certify their own financial hardships — was unconstitutional. 

In that case, the judges called the appeal “a challenge to the expired provisions of the old statute but is realistically an attempt to challenge the new statute.” 

Here, too, the challenge Baffert wanted to put forth was in fact a new one, the judge said. 

“They brought a new enforcement action,” Amon said. “They did not seek to suspend him, they are offering him a hearing.” 

A spokesperson for the New York Racing Association praised the ruling. 

“We are gratified by the court’s decision allowing NYRA to proceed with its administrative proceeding against Bob Baffert,” Pat McKenna told reporters after Tuesday’s hearing. “The court found that NYRA’s actions were consistent with the letter and spirit of the July 14th order. Additionally, the court recognized the fairness of NYRA’s hearing rules and procedures.”

Robertson said he was “disappointed, but we’ll go to the hearing and deal with it there.” 

Baffert’s hearing in front of the New York Racing Association is set for October 11. 

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