In an announcement Monday, Kentucky Horse Racing Commission officials stripped the late thoroughbred horse, Medina Spirit, of its 2021 Kentucky Derby victory, and the colt’s Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, was suspended 90 days and fined $7,500.
The latest salvo in a nearly year-long drama follows a recent hearing before a three-member panel of KHRC stewards. The panel eventually ruled that Medina Spirit — who died in December at Santa Anita (Calif.) Park — is disqualified after testing positive for a banned corticosteroid, betamethasone, following last year’s Derby.
The drug is used to reduce swelling and pain.
“Medina Spirit is disqualified and all purse money forfeited,” reads the stewards’ ruling. “During his suspension, Mr. Baffert is denied the privileges of all facilities under the jurisdiction of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Entry of all horses owned or trained by Mr. Baffert is denied pending transfer to persons acceptable to the stewards.”
Baffert’s suspension starts March 8, 2022 and runs through June 5, according to the ruling, and that indicates that Baffert would not be permitted to enter horses in this year’s Derby, scheduled for May 7.
But Baffert’s attorney, Clark Brewster, said in an interview Monday that Baffert and his legal team immediately appealed the ruling, and if necessary, they would take the matter directly to the Kentucky state court system.
“There’s no question the substance in (Medina Spirit) came from a salve. That was proven, not only scientifically, but from record keeping,” said Brewster. “The rule dealing with the use of betamethasone only as an intra-articular injectable was never violated.”
Brewster also said that he thinks the deck was unfairly stacked against Baffert since one of the stewards on the panel, Tyler B. Picklesimer, is the current director of racing at Turfway Park, which is owned by Churchill Downs.
“There’s no way there wasn’t bias,” said Brewster. “I just don’t think it has any ring of fairness. I’m very confident that when we get the opportunity to be before neutral decision makers who are generally interested in applying the rules to the facts, we win.”
For now, the official 2021 Kentucky Derby winner is Mandaloun and the $1.8 million first-place purse money goes to Mandaloun’s connections, including owner Juddmonte. It’s only the third time in the 147-year history of the Derby that a first-place finisher has been disqualified.
Earlier this year, Baffert had threatened legal action against Churchill Downs, and Brewster said Monday that a decision had not yet been made on that legal front.
“We were always hopeful that when people saw the facts and rules, that this matter was over,” said Brewster. “That’s not the case, so we’ll weigh our options as to whether to commence action against Churchill at the same time, or proceed with an appeal and file suit at a later time.”
In a New York Times story published last month, Churchill Downs’ chief executive, Bill Carstanjen, called any threat of litigation by Baffert “completely meritless.” Carstanjen also told the paper that a countersuit would be filed if Baffert took legal action.
Meanwhile, the 69-year-old Baffert still awaits a ruling from the New York Racing Association, which last May 17 announced a temporary suspension of Baffert. That ban included Baffert being barred from entering any of his horses in races at three NYRA properties: Belmont Park, Saratoga Race Course and Aqueduct Racetrack.
There was a NYRA administrative hearing held January 24 through January 28 this year as a result of the organization charging Baffert with multiple infractions, including “engaging in conduct detrimental to the best interests of Thoroughbred Racing.”
O. Peter Sherwood, a retired New York State Supreme Court Justice, presided over the NYRA hearing and will deliver a ruling.
“The Hearing Report shall contain findings of fact, conclusions, and a recommended disposition,” a NYRA spokesman said. “If the Hearing Officer finds that revocation or suspension of the respondent’s (Baffert) right to access, or engage in any activity, at a NYRA racetrack is warranted, the Hearing Report shall state the length of time that the revocation or suspension shall be in effect. The post-hearing process is ongoing.”
Whether Baffert will be granted access to Churchill Downs to compete in horse racing’s crown jewel event this year remains to be seen. Last month, Brewster said in another interview that he was confident Baffert would not only have his horses compete in the 2022 Derby, but that the trainer would be in the winner’s circle. Baffert said in a text message at that same time that he was fighting a battle for himself and his peers.
“I feel that I have to stand up, not just for myself and my owners, but for any trainer they may in the future want to destroy,” said Baffert, referring to Churchill Downs. “Their money and power is not a match for truth and law.”