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Medina Spirit Trainer’s NY Racing Ban Violates Due Process, Judge Rules

"Although NYRA characterizes the suspension as ‘temporary,’ a better description of it would be ‘indefinite,’” the federal judge wrote.

BROOKLYN (CN) — The trainer behind Medina Spirit’s win in the Kentucky Derby took home a legal victory on Wednesday when a federal judge blocked his suspension from New York racetracks, which suspended him after the racehorse tested positive for a steroid. 

The test results earned decorated trainer Bob Baffert a two-year suspension from Churchill Downs, and following that news, the New York Racing Association suspended Baffert too, while a Kentucky investigation continues. 

Medina Spirit tested positive for an anti-inflammatory drug called betamethasone, injections of which are forbidden within two weeks before a race. Baffert has said that the substance came from an ointment used to treat a skin rash on the horse. 

Accusing the horseracing officials of trampling on his due process rights, Baffert said in his federal complaint that it could be years before his conduct is vetted in Kentucky. 

In the meantime, he won’t have access to stable space or facilities in New York, and will be shut out of the Belmont Stakes — one of the races in the Triple Crown, which Baffert has won twice in his four-decade career. The trainer contended that he has lost one major client already and that others have floated the idea of looking elsewhere. 

U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon agreed that the ban, instituted without a hearing, would irreparably harm the trainer, both financially and in terms of his racing opportunities and reputation. 

Considering the New York Racing Association to be acting on behalf of the government, Amon said that the association should have given Baffert an opportunity to address the claims against him. 

The drug tests and Derby suspension “were not so straightforward as to deny Baffert an opportunity to address them before being summarily suspended,” Amon wrote in the 28-page ruling

At a hearing on Monday, attorneys for the racing association cited statements Baffert gave during a “media tour” following the May 1 race, in which he blamed “cancel culture” for the disciplinary action against him. The association also referenced those interviews in the May 17 letter suspending him. 

“Reliance on Baffert’s statements to the press following the Kentucky Derby without giving him an opportunity to address them was similarly problematic,” Amon wrote. “When the credibility of a property-holder is in issue, that is exactly the situation when a hearing is necessary so that the individual may be heard directly… But NYRA’s failure to provide a hearing deprived him of a meaningful opportunity to provide his side of the story.” 

Short of holding a hearing before suspending Baffert, the racing association should have held a “prompt” post-suspension hearing, Amon added. 

Attorney Henry Greenberg, arguing on behalf of the New York Racing Association, told the judge earlier this week that Baffert would have a chance to appeal his suspension after the association’s board meets on Aug. 11 to determine the length of the measure. 

Greenberg, of the firm Greenberg Traurig, said that Baffert could have had a hearing, but that “he was obliged to ask.”

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

The judge concluded that the August timeline cannot reasonably be deemed as prompt, especially in light of a race at Saratoga Race Course, about 30 miles north of Albany, that will open on Thursday. 

“NYRA has provided no explanation for why it could not have offered Baffert a hearing in the two months since he was suspended, nor any explanation for why it must wait another month to make a ‘final determination,’” Amon wrote. “And although NYRA characterizes the suspension as ‘temporary,’ a better description of it would be ‘indefinite.’”

William Craig Robertson III, Baffert’s attorney, called Amon’s ruling a step toward righting unfair treatment of Baffert during an “improper rush to judgment” following the Kentucky Derby. 

“I am grateful for a Court system that protects an individual when his Constitutional rights have been trampled on by an entity like NYRA,” Robertson, of the Kentucky-based firm Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, told Courthouse News via email. 

“All that being said, my hope is that this ruling will lead toward cooperation between the parties and not further division,” he continued. “Bob Baffert and NYRA have had a good relationship in the past. My hope is that they can get to that point again for the overall good of horse racing.”

Greenberg did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

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