Legendary trainer Bob Baffert received word from Churchill Downs racetrack that he will no longer be welcome on their hallowed Kentucky racetrack for the next two years. The decision came after the second and final test results review for Baffert-trained Medina Spirit, this year’s Kentucky Derby winner, before coming up positive for the banned substance, betamethasone. Churchill Downs had to do something. This was their something.
Horse racing isn’t like most professional sports leagues. Tracks are independently owned and largely controlled through state licensing and commissions. There is no nationwide league, which means what Churchill Downs decides other racetracks can choose to honor, or not. In suspension cases in the past, some tracks have honored their fellow horse track owner decisions, some have not. The decisions almost certainly are made at a very practical level. Meaning, money.
Nevertheless, losing Churchill Downs is no small penalty. That’s the Kentucky Derby. The run-up to the Derby is Baffert’s specialty. You take out the Derby and he’s likely to lose lots of clients who aren’t simply going to hand over their three-year-old million-dollar horses to him knowing the first leg of the Triple Crown is off the table. Nobody in Baffert’s company is allowed to train horses for Churchill Downs in his place if you were wondering.
Baffert is legendary for winning (sort of) now seven Kentucky Derbies. He’s also been busted for 30 horse-related infractions in his career, many of those for banned substances. He’s had five such punishments during this season alone. While betamethasone isn’t itself known to be a performance-enhancing horse drug, it is banned, and Baffert’s story about it coming unwittingly through a skin lotion rubdown sounds about legit as Barry Bonds trying to explain why his old baseball hats don’t fit anymore.
Baffert is clearly skirting the line at every opportunity. He’s not alone in that regard when it comes to top tier professional sports performers. People who get to the top of these industries get there for a reason. Playing it safe, following the rules, and playing like a gentleman is rarely in the equation.
The problem with horse racing, as with previous sports in the recent past, is a corruption taint. These are not only fun and lively spectator sports, these are big betting business. You can’t have “cheating” be bandied about commonly with your sport when you’re asking people to wager big bucks on your competitions. Medina Spirit created a huge mess at Churchill Downs when the horse had to be disqualified after-the-fact and after bets were already won, or lost, based on his original first place finish. Nobody wants to be holding a losing betting stub for a horse that just lost out to another horse that was found to be cheating. Bad gambling joujou.
Baffert will almost certainly be appealing the track’s decision and seeking a temporary restraining order while awaiting that appeal. If green is the most important color in the legal trade, he’s likely to do well with at least the latter element of that request. But could this actually be the death knell for perhaps the most famous trainer (and most famous caught cheater) in modern horse racing? Baffert strikes you as that guy who is never fully down for the count. So don’t bet on it.