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Monday, July 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Due Process Could Upend NY Racing Ban After Derby Debacle

A lawyer for the trainer behind Medina Spirit argued Monday that the New York Racing Association served as "judge, jury and executioner" after the Kentucky Derby champion tested positive for a steroid.

BROOKLYN (CN) — Bob Baffert pushed a federal judge Monday to nix his suspension from New York racetracks, saying his horse-training business is unfairly suffering while officials decide whether his Kentucky Derby winning steed improperly benefitted from a banned substance. 

Baffert had been set to collect $1.8 million for training Medina Spirit before the 3-year-old Prontico colt tested positive for a steroid called betamethasone in drug tests following the May 1 race. Shortly after Churchill Downs handed Baffert a two-year ban, the New York Racing Association devised its own punishment.

With 46 years under his belt as a thoroughbred racehorse trainer, Baffert promptly sued in Brooklyn, saying New York's move will be deprived of access to grounds and stall space in the Empire State pending an investigation that could underway for years. 

New York racing authorities punished Baffert without a hearing, and “without a scintilla of due process,” his attorney William Craig Robertson III argued at a Monday hearing on the case. Robertson said at least one major client has left Baffert, and others have suggested they may look elsewhere if he continues to be barred from New York. 

As for betamethasone, a steroid used to reduce pain and inflammation, Robertson called it a “lawful, allowable, therapeutic” medication. He contended, as Baffert has previously, that the substance came from an ointment that a veterinarian prescribed three weeks before the May 1 race to treat a skin rash. 

Injections of betamethasone are forbidden within two weeks before a race, but ointments are not regulated, said Robertson, who is with the Kentucky-based firm Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs. 

“There are no penalties associated with betamethasone being found via an ointment,” he told the socially distanced courtroom. Meanwhile, Baffert had been suspended for 56 days as of Monday.

“NYRA has jumped the gun here, and decided to serve as judge, jury and executioner,” the lawyer continued. 

In the letter suspending him, state officials noted that Baffert didn't help his cause by offering conflicting explanations for Medina Spirit's positive test. New York’s ban keeps Baffert away from three New York tracks: the Aqueduct in Queens, Belmont Park on Long Island and Saratoga Race Course, about 30 miles north of Albany.

Though it wasn’t clear whether Baffert planned to race in this year’s Belmont Stakes race on June 5 — one of the three races in the Triple Crown, which Baffert’s horses have won twice — he was forbidden from doing so. 

Further, the upcoming Saratoga meet, which opens on Thursday, is “the premiere race meet in the country,” said Robertson, who spoke with a slight Southern accent — adding that it “pains me to say” that, as a native of Lexington, Kentucky, about 80 miles from Churchill Downs. 

Winning a race at Saratoga is career-making, Robertson explained, for both trainers and horses, whose breeding prospects would spike following a win at the track. 

The inverse, he argued, is also true: Being blocked from New York races is causing clients to threaten to look elsewhere. 

“His business, as it currently exists, yes, it will be gone,” without an injunction of New York’s decision, Robertson said. 

Arguing on behalf of the New York Racing Association, Greenberg Traurig attorney Henry Greenberg pointed out that the vast majority of Baffert’s business takes place outside of New York state. 

Greenberg also noted that Baffert faces other disciplinary actions, having been cited for five alleged doping violations within a year. Following the fifth, suspension from Churchill Downs, Baffert went on a media tour blaming “cancel culture” and sullying the name of the Kentucky Derby, Greenberg said.

New York’s suspension sent the message to racing fans that “something can be done when the unimaginable has occurred,” Greenberg added. 

Baffert says he was denied due process, but Greenberg said Baffert will get a “full-blown hearing” on August 11, when the New York Racing Association’s board meets to determine the length and details of his suspension. Baffert can appeal the outcome of that decision. 

U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon asked Greenberg about the lack of Baffert’s input in the disciplinary process to date, inquiring whether August would be too late. 

Greenberg said that Baffert could have requested a hearing following the May 17 letter suspending him and before he was excluded from the Belmont Stakes. 

“He was obliged to ask,” Greenberg argued. 

“You mean he has to give himself a hearing?” Amon replied. 

Greenberg continued that, since past infractions and other facts behind the suspension were not up for debate, “a pre-suspension hearing would have contributed nothing.” 

Later, on rebuttal, Robertson called it “preposterous” to suggest that Baffert had to ask for a hearing. 

“That is a complete affront to due process,” he said. 

Amon reserved judgment on Baffert’s motion for a preliminary injunction. Attorneys for both parties declined to speak on the record following Monday’s proceeding.

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