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Derby Winner’s Trainer Fights Suspension in Court

A reprimand from the New York Racing Association suggests that Bob Baffert kept changing his story on the potential horse-doping infraction.

BROOKLYN (CN) — Medina Spirit’s trainer sued the New York Racing Association on Monday for suspending him while an investigation into the horse’s Kentucky Derby victory continues. 

In drug tests following the May 1 race, Medina Spirit, a 3-year-old Prontico colt, tested positive for a steroid called betamethasone, used to reduce pain and inflammation. 

Churchill Downs suspended trainer Bob Baffert for two years on the news, and two weeks later Baffert faced similar bans from three New York tracks, the Aqueduct in Queens, Belmont Park on Long Island and Saratoga Race Course, about 30 miles north of Alabny.

Baffert — who claims a 46-year career as a thoroughbred racehorse trainer — hit back Monday at the New York Racing Association. Noting that the race investigation could take years to unfold, the federal complaint in the Eastern District of New York accuses the organization of depriving him of access to grounds and stall space in violation of his due process rights.

“Specifically, Baffert maintains a right to rely upon and use his New York State occupational trainer’s license that was duly issued to him without limitation by the New York State Gaming Commission,” the 22-page complaint states. 

“NYRA has, without legal authority, and without any notice or opportunity to be heard, attempted to indefinitely suspend Baffert’s trainer’s license issued by the Gaming Commission, thereby preventing Baffert from practicing in his chosen profession or using his state issued license on state owned property. 

Baffert won $1.8 million for Medina Spirit’s Derby win. He’ll lose that money if race organizers decide to disqualify him. 

The California-based Baffert notes in the complaint that he has trained 17 winners of the Belmont Stakes, from which is now banned from entering. Baffert also said seven horses he trained won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, respectively. 

“Of the thirteen American Triple Crown Winners in history, Baffert has trained two of them,” the complaint notes: American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018. The trainer was elected to the National Thoroughbred Hall of Fame in 2009.

Baffert holds that the levels of betamethasone discovered in Medina Spirit do not inherently prove use of a performance-enhancing drug, saying the substance is “commonly administered in horses to reduce inflammation.” 

Kentucky Derby rules forbid injections of the steroid during the 14 days before a race, to allow the substance to dissipate. 

“There are, however, other methods in which betamethasone may unintentionally enter a horse’s system,” like environmental contamination or via ointments used to treat dermatitis, Baffert’s complaint says. 

David O’Rourke, CEO and president of the New York Racing Association, questioned Baffert’s claims about the steroid source — and his track record — in his May 17 letter suspending the trainer. 

“In response to Churchill Downs’ suspension, you have provided the media with different accounts and theories as to why Medina Spirit tested positive for betamethasone, most recently blaming the result on a cream used on the horse by a veterinarian without your knowledge,” O’Rourke wrote. 

“In any event,” the letter continues, “Churchill Downs’ suspension comes in the wake of at least four other drug testing violations of horses trained by you in the past year, as found by state racing regulators in Arkansas, California and Kentucky.” 

Ongoing tests will show whether the substance came from an injection, topical ointment or otherwise — but for now, Medina Spirit still holds his title in the Run for the Roses. 

Baffert asserts that he is in good standing with New York’s gaming commission, and that even if he is found to have violated Kentucky Derby rules, his penalty could be as short as a 30-day suspension. 

But the vetting process could take years, he says, and during that time frame, he will be deprived of the opportunity to compete in New York races. 

“For context, only one other Kentucky Derby winner has been subsequently disqualified for a finding in a post-race blood sample. That matter was adjudicated for nearly four years before any final determination was reached,” the complaint states (emphasis in original). 

The Brooklyn lawsuit is not the only legal challenge surrounding Medina Spirit’s fraught win. 

In mid-May, bettors in California sued Baffert for fraud and violations of federal anti-racketeering law, saying their horses lost the Derby to a doped horse. 

Baffert’s attorney W. Craig Robertson III from Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs called the California lawsuit “completely frivolous and without legal merit,” saying the team will move for dismissal. 

Early this month meanwhile, Baffert sued the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to demand a redo of the urine test whose results confirmed prohibited levels of betamethasone. 

Baffert’s attorney declined to comment on the Brooklyn lawsuit, and representatives for the New York Racing Association did not return requests for comment on Monday. 

Follow @NinaPullano
Categories / Civil Rights, Entertainment, Sports

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