Two days after a pair of Bob Baffert-trained horses ran in the Preakness, the New York Racing Association suspended the embattled trainer and all of his horses from the state’s tracks ahead of the June 5 Belmont Stakes.
“In order to maintain a successful Thoroughbred racing industry in New York, NYRA must protect the integrity of the sport for our fans, the betting public, and racing participants,” NYRA president and CEO Dave O’Rourke said in a statement. “That responsibility demands the action taken today in the best interests of Thoroughbred racing.”
With its stern response, New York joined Churchill Downs, which suspended Baffert shortly after he announced Kentucky Derby champion Medina Spirit had tested positive for the anti-inflammatory drug betamethasone. If a split-sample blood test taken after the Derby confirms the positive for betamethasone, Medina Spirit will likely become just the second horse to lose a Derby title because of a medication violation.
Baffert and his employees will be barred from occupying stall space or entering horses at Belmont Park, Aqueduct Racetrack or Saratoga Race Course, with the length of the suspension to be determined after Kentucky officials conclude their investigation of Medina Spirit. In announcing the penalty, NYRA cited a recent string of medication violations for Baffert-trained horses in Kentucky, Arkansas and the trainer’s home base of California.
The penalty stood in contrast to Preakness organizers’ decision to allow Baffert’s horses in the second leg of the Triple Crown on the condition that they pass three prerace drug tests. They cited Baffert’s right to due process given that the split-sample test from Kentucky had yet to come back.
“We are well aware of the public outcry and calls for action that have been the natural outcome of a medication positive in one of the most iconic races in our sport and we share the disappointment and concern,” said Craig Fravel, chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club’s parent company, 1/ST Racing, in explaining the decision. “We are required to acknowledge in this instance that fundamental fairness compels us to respect the individual rights of participants in our sport to due process and adherence to agreed-upon and well-established rules.”
The decision drew backlash from anti-doping activists, who said it was another example of the racing industry’s lax handling of medication violations.
Both Medina Spirit and Concert Tour passed their prerace tests, and they finished third and ninth, respectively, in a Preakness won by 12-1 shot Rombauer.
It’s difficult to compare the decision that faced Preakness officials with the one New York officials made Monday.
Baffert had already stated his plans to enter Medina Spirit and Concert Tour in the Preakness when news of the post-Derby test failure broke. His attorney, W. Craig Robertson III, said he would seek a temporary restraining order if Preakness officials tried to bar either horse.
In New York, by contrast, it’s not clear Baffert had plans to run any of his 3-year-olds in the Belmont Stakes. His assistant, Jimmy Barnes, said future races for Medina Spirit and Concert Tour were undetermined as of Sunday morning. Both horses shipped from Pimlico Race Course back to Churchill Downs on Sunday.
Baffert doesn’t keep a regular barn in New York, so it’s not as if a suspension in the state will radically alter his plans for the summer. The only horse he had explicitly pointed to New York was Charlatan, who was a possibility to run on the Belmont Stakes undercard.
Would NYRA have acted so boldly if Medina Spirit had won the Preakness and headed for Belmont Park as a possible Triple Crown winner? It’s impossible to say.
Robertson previously said Churchill Downs violated Baffert’s due process by suspending him before Medina Spirit’s split sample from the Derby was tested. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon.
Triple Crown series
153rd BELMONT STAKES
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