He had just tied legendary trainer Ben Jones with his sixth Kentucky Derby win saddling Authentic at a spectator-less Churchill Downs Sept. 5, but Bob Baffert seemed more surprised than happy.
You couldn’t blame him. While being saddled in the paddock minutes before the race, Thousand Words—the horse Baffert thought could win—skittishly reared up, flipped and landed on his back. Assistant Trainer Jimmy Barnes was knocked to the ground and suffered a broken wrist. Thousand Words was unharmed, but became a mandatory scratch as a safety precaution for the horse.
After his upset win over favorite Tiz the Law had just been completed, Authentic picked up where Thousand Words left off. Bothered by the ribbon on the blanket of red roses draped over the Derby winner, Authentic spun wildly in the Winners Circle, scattering connections as well as Baffert to the turf.
The Weirdest Two Minutes in Sports seemed an appropriate metaphor for Baffert’s year to that point.
Speaking with the few assembled COVID-restricted media in the Churchill Downs press room after the race, the most successful current U.S. trainer in Thoroughbred racing took a sip from the Makers Mark Kentucky Mint Julep awaiting the winning trainer and appeared to have calmed for the first time in hours, maybe days.
Usually upbeat and jocular with the press in public, Baffert seemed much more withdrawn, even humble in the moment, as he and winning jockey John Velazquez explained their winning strategy and patiently answered questions.
Then the highest profile public face in the world of horse racing revealed his private reflection.
“This is the craziest year ever,” Baffert exhaled. “It’s been tough on me, tough on my wife Jill. I had four horses ready to roll…my best start ever,” he explained, referring to three-year-olds Charlatan, Gamine, Nadal and Thousand Words and their Derby hopes.
Then three slipped away one-by-one as Baffert’s “craziest year ever” became ever more crazy.
Before Thousand Words’ self-imposed Derby exit, Nadal suffered a condylar fracture during training. The winner of Division II of the Arkansas Derby was retired.
Then two others of Baffert’s four ran afoul of Arkansas Racing Commission medication rules after both tested positive for trace amounts of the topical anesthetic lidocaine. The positive test results followed victories in their respective races on Arkansas Derby Day May 2 at Oaklawn Park.
Charlatan was disqualified from his Division I victory in the Arkansas Derby, Gamine from her win in an allowance race. Baffert appealed the Commission ruling that ordered a 15-day suspension for him and redistribution of winning purses as both horses were consigned to last place.
Charlatan later suffered a minor ankle injury and was taken off the Derby trail. But things got worse for Baffert when, in the middle of the appeal, Gamine again tested positive for betamethasone in Kentucky following her third-place finish in the Sept. 4 Kentucky Oaks. Betamethasone is a topical corticosteroid used to relieve skin itching and inflammation.
To be clear, lidocaine and betamethasone are not “drugs” in the classic sense of the word as publicly understood, a substance banned specifically because it is a known performance enhancing drug (PED). Neither are banned. Both are allowable topical medications used to treat minor injuries as long as their use remains within the differing race day limits set by each of the 38 U.S. racing authorities, usually stated in “pico”grams (“trillionths” of a gram), as in the case of both horses.
Baffert’s attorney, Craig Robertson, filed an appeal on his client’s behalf for the two Arkansas cases. The Kentucky result was discovered and made public while that appeal was in progress.
Kentucky state racing rules differ from those in Arkansas. Those rules allow use of the Class C drug betamethasone as a therapeutic provided the horse is given a minimum 14-day withdrawal period. Any level detected on race day is a violation punishable by a $1,000 fine absent other mitigating circumstances.
A split sample is being tested in the Kentucky case even as Gamine prepares for her race later today at the Keeneland Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Gamine’s test revealed a level of 27 picograms. Again, Kentucky rules mandate a zero level on race day.
Robertson issued a statement contending the medication was administered 17–18 days before the Kentucky Oaks.
“Trainers and veterinarians must be able to rely on guidelines given them by racing officials,” Robertson said in the statement. “If they are told by regulators that a medication will clear a horse’s system in 14 days, they must be able to rely on that information.”
Baffert’s defense does not dispute the accuracy of the test results in either state. Rather, it contends the limits are far too low and that they are not uniform across racing jurisdictions.
“The thresholds for many lawful medications such as betamethasone are way too low,” Robertson said. “A picogram is a trillionth of a gram—27 picograms is a minuscule amount that would not affect a thousand-pound animal. The regulations governing racing must be ones that are related to pharmacology in a horse as opposed to how sensitive labs can test.”
Baffert’s “craziest year ever” became crazier still when two complaints were filed by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) with racing stewards at Santa Anita Park.
One complaint seeks disqualification and redistribution of purse winnings from Justify’s failed drug test in 2018 after the Santa Anita Derby. The second complaint seeks the same remedies for Hoppertunity’s failed test following his win in the Tokyo City Cup at Santa Anita the following day. “Hopper” was another Baffert-trained horse, since retired from racing.
Both horses tested positive for scopolamine following those respective races. Scopolomine is a medication sometimes used to treat mild cases of colic or gastro-intestinal spasms. Its presence is banned on race day in California.
At that time, Baffert contended the scopolamine was due to “environmental contamination,” of both horses’ hay. Jimsonweed, which grows wild in California, can introduce the banned substance into a horse’s feed.
The then-CHRB accepted Baffert’s explanation in a closed-door CHRB meeting held in August 2018. It was reconstituted in the aftermath of the public and California State government’s outrage and resulting investigations into last year’s spate of fatal breakdowns at Santa Anita during its winter racing season. The CHRB has since become more proactive on safety issues as a result.
The complaints by the Board came after Mick Ruis filed a lawsuit against the CHRB for failure to carry out its regulatory duties in response to Justify’s positive test. Ruis trained Bolt d’Oro, runner-up to Justify in the 2018 Santa Anita Derby.
Ruis is seeking disqualification of Justify from his win and redistribution of the purse money. Justify earned $600,000, Bolt d’Oro $200,000. The CHRB agreed to file the complaint against Justify with the Santa Anita stewards and publicly re-hear the allegations, including witness testimony, in partial settlement of Ruis’s lawsuit against the Board.
That hearing was held and testimony heard two weeks ago. Representatives and witnesses for both sides offered testimony. Baffert’s side was joined by representatives for Mike Smith, Justify’s jockey. The hearing was concluded, further developments are pending.
The allegation was complicated, now as then, by the fact Justify’s Santa Anita Derby win put him on the path to wins in all three Triple Crown races making him the 13th winner in history of racing’s greatest and most elusive historic prize.
Baffert is sometimes called “The Silver Fox” in recognition of his instantly recognizable silver hair. There have been whispers for several years, both inside the industry and among knowledgeable fans and followers of Thoroughbred racing, that the “Fox” has been raiding the chicken coop, knowingly violating the sport’s medication constraints.
Those whispers regarding Baffert have become louder as the industry grapples with public, animal rights and governmental demands for reforms to ensure the safety of racehorses and Baffert grapples with a mounting list of allegations.
There have been four allegations so far this year, 30 over the course of his 35-year career as a Thoroughbred trainer. The whisperers infer that Baffert is personally involved in committing the misdeeds.
In fairness to Baffert, any such inferences would be oversimplified. Bob Baffert Racing Stable, Inc. at its California base is run more like an Olympic training facility for equine athletes than a folksy worm-holed barn in the Kentucky Bluegrass Country.
Baffert isn’t with every one of his long string of horses every day going stall-to-stall, feeding, watering and mucking. His “stable” is in reality a small industry that employs staff, assistant trainers, stable hands, veterinarians and, yes, lawyers. Together, they effect Baffert’s overall strategy to produce winning racehorses.
And win they do. A Hall of Fame trainer with over 3,000 wins and counting, Baffert is tied with Ben Jones for those six Kentucky Derby wins, coming within a Belmont win of three others. He has won three Dubai World Cups. The number of horses he has trained is probably near-incalculable, even to him.
Not everyone is a Baffert basher. Many accuse his detractors of having an advanced case of envy.
Still, at a time when racing is under siege and rules in most jurisdictions stipulate trainers are personally held accountable for any misdeed, Baffert can expect to be held most accountable as the sport’s most public and recognizable face.
While there are those who accuse him of personal misdeeds, there are others who understand his complicated situation, while not being especially sympathetic.
Barry Irwin is the owner of Team Valor, the breeder and owner of 2011 Kentucky Derby and 2013 Dubai World Cup winner Animal Kingdom. He is such a staunch and prominent opponent of all drugs in racing that he was named 2014 winner of Equine Advocates “Equine Savior Award,” citing that opposition and industry leadership. He has since foregone racing in America.
“If this was anybody but Baffert, I might have a little sympathy for him because I’m sure he did what his vet told him to,” says Irwin. “(But) I think he thinks he’s gotten bigger than the game. I think that he thinks he doesn’t have to pay attention.”
Circling back to that spare press briefing room at Churchill Downs, Baffert’s reflection that day may be an awakening that he has a responsibility to the sport, and especially to the equine athletes, jockeys and employees in his care.
On Wednesday during this Breeders’ Cup week, America’s largest international stage for the sport, Baffert issued a statement pledging to take steps to run a “tight ship.” He announced he would assume greater personal responsibility for what happens in his barn. He promised to increase training for all his employees and retained veterinarian Dr. Michael Hore to improve his rule compliance and better protect the horses in his care.
“I want to have a positive influence on the sport of horse racing,” Baffert said in the statement. “Horses have been my life and I owe everything to them and the tremendous sport in which I have been so fortunate to be involved.”
Later today, Gamine will contest the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint as the favorite.
This evening, Baffert will saddle three of the 10 contenders in racing’s most prized year-end contest, the Breeders’ Cup Classic. They include the favorite, Improbable, Kentucky Derby winner Authentic, and last year’s first-place Kentucky Derby finisher, Maximum Security, disqualified for interference, the first such race day DQ and only the second one in the Derby’s 146-year history.
“Max,” as he is affectionately known, was entrusted to Baffert’s care by owners Gary and Mary West when it was uncovered in a Federal investigation made public that former trainer Jason Servis had been abusing Max and other horses with an undetectable performance enhancing drug his entire racing career.
How ironic that alleged substance abuser Bob Baffert has been entrusted with the care of a drug-abused racehorse.
How ironic that Bob Baffert started his “best year ever” with four Kentucky Derby contenders, three of which would fall off the path.
How ironic that Bob Baffert will end his “craziest year ever” with another four “replacements,” all potential Breeders’ Cup winners, three in the Classic, any one of which would likely be crowned Horse of the Year with a win this evening.
How ironic. How fitting.
“This has been a rollercoaster year,” reflected Baffert back in that post-Derby Churchill Down press conference. “But, thankfully, I love the horses. They’re the best therapy.”
Maybe, just maybe, Bob Baffert’s “craziest year ever” has just gotten a little saner.