Bob Baffert and Medina Spirit, the morning after the 2021 Kentucky Derby
With the weeks dwindling down to a precious few before the final round of races offering qualifying points for the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby on May 7, the options for trainer Bob Baffert and the various owners with horses in his stable are coming into focus.
There are legal and logistical challenges ahead on more than one front.
Baffert is facing a 90-day suspension that could begin as early as next week if Franklin Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wingate affirms a Kentucky Horse Racing Commission decision to deny Baffert a stay of that ban. The suspension stems from a failed drug test of Medina Spirit, who has been disqualified from his victory in the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Both the DQ and Baffert’s suspension have been appealed.
If Wingate overturns the KHRC decision, Baffert will be able to continue training for as long as the case is under appeal. But that doesn’t resolve eligibility for Baffert horses in the Kentucky Derby or any other races at Churchill Downs racetrack, whose parent company has exercised its private property rights and imposed a two-year ban that applies to all Churchill Downs Inc.-owned racetracks through the spring of 2023. Along with that exclusion came a decision not to award Kentucky Derby qualifying points to any horse trained by Baffert.
So what’s an owner to do if he or she has invested millions of dollars in racing prospects in hopes of hitting the jackpot by winning the Kentucky Derby and scoring a stallion deal worth tens of millions of dollars?
There are a few potential scenarios.
They could just deal with the Churchill ban while the lawyers run up their meters, race at tracks where the Baffert stable is welcome, and find other Grade 1 races to build a stallion resume.
But, if Wingate affirms the KHRC decision to deny a stay and Baffert begins his suspension next week, California Horse Racing Board rules may block what we’ve seen happen in many other instances of trainer suspensions: namely, that the stable is turned over to an assistant and it is pretty much business as usual while the boss goes on vacation or trains from his living room.
CHRB Rule 1843.3 states, among other things, that horses may not be transferred to licensed family members or, in cases where a licensee is suspended for more than 30 days, horses may not be transferred to “any other licensee who has been an employee of the suspended licensee within the previous year.”
Also, the rule states: “Licensed trainers suspended 60 days or more shall be banned from all inclosures under the jurisdiction of the CHRB. In addition, during the period of suspension, such trainer shall forfeit all assigned stall space and shall remove from the inclosures all signage, colors, advertisements, training-related equipment, tack, office equipment, and any other property.”
This means that assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes or any other employee of the Baffert stable may not take over and run the horses in their name.
The owners could choose to move top 3-year-olds like Messier, dominating winner of the G3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes, to another active trainer. But as Clark Brewster, one of a bevy of attorneys hired by Baffert to fight his legal battles, told the KHRC during his appeal for a stay: “Mr. Baffert has in his barn 88 horses presently. He serves as the employer to over 70 families’ principal earners. Many of these families’ earners have been with him for 30 years. … This stewards ruling would require that he disband that barn and disperse these horses in an incredibly disruptive and damaging way, irreparably damaging.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
There doesn’t appear to be anything in the rules to prevent the entire Baffert stable from being temporarily turned over to a retired or former trainer who can get licensed, apply for the same stalls that Baffert currently has, and hire the same people who now work for Baffert – from assistant trainers to exercise riders and grooms. Under that scenario, the horses wouldn’t have to move, and they would be handled by the same people who care for them now. The horses, including Triple Crown prospects, presumably could run in the name of the new trainer, earn Kentucky Derby points in races like the Santa Anita and Arkansas Derbies, and race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May – if the tracks that provide stabling and put on the races agree to a potential scheme like this.
And if that’s the case, we may need another asterisk for this year’s Kentucky Derby.
That’s my view from the eighth pole.