Around the country Monday, leading horse trainers prepared their top 3-year-old runners for the approaching Triple Crown season, which will kick off with the Kentucky Derby four weeks from Saturday.
The most successful trainer in the history of the series was not among them. Instead, Bob Baffert began serving a 90-day suspension imposed on him by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission as punishment for Medina Spirit’s medication violation coming out of last year’s Derby.
Baffert ran out of immediate avenues for blocking the suspension Friday when the Kentucky Court of Appeals denied his request for an emergency stay that would have allowed him to continue operating. With other states, including Maryland, honoring the suspension as part of reciprocity agreements with Kentucky, thoroughbred racing’s most famous figure will seemingly be sidelined for the highest-profile stretch of the North American racing calendar. That span will include the May 21 Preakness Stakes, meaning Baffert will not have a chance to seek his record-breaking eighth win in the second leg of the Triple Crown.
“This will not be the first time he’s missed the Kentucky Derby, but his absence will definitely be conspicuous given his recent success in the Derby and the incredible roll that his racing stable has been on for the last few months,” said NBC racing analyst Randy Moss. “There is fault on both sides. Bob has been undeniably too careless with his medication protocols, and I think that Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission are treating him differently than they have treated other horsemen in the past.”
When the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) announced the suspension in February, Baffert’s attorneys expressed confidence that he would quickly be granted a stay as his appeal moved forward. That would have kept him in play for the Preakness, a significant fact given the collection of talented 3-year-olds in his barn. Instead, the KHRC, a district court judge in Kentucky and finally the Kentucky Court of Appeals denied his requests for temporary relief.
“We were disappointed by today’s decision, but it’s important to understand that the court made it clear that it denied the stay purely on procedural grounds and not on the merits, all of which point to Bob ultimately winning this case,” Baffert’s attorney, Clark Brewster, said in a statement released Friday. “We will continue to fight for Bob’s ability to race and win in Kentucky and against the injustice of KHRC against Bob.”
As Baffert’s immediate legal options dwindled, owners of the top 3-year-olds in his barn began shifting their horses to other trainers in hopes of staying in the Triple Crown hunt. The most talented of those candidates, Messier, is now under the care of former Baffert assistant Tim Yakteen and will run in the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday in hopes of earning enough qualifying points to make the Kentucky Derby field.
If Messier runs impressively, he could go off as one of the favorites in the 2022 Derby a year after Medina Spirit crossed the finish line first and seemingly gave Baffert his record-breaking seventh win in the first leg of the Triple Crown. A week later, that story of triumph was complicated by Medina Spirit’s positive test for the anti-inflammatory drug betamethasone, which is permitted for therapeutic use but cannot appear in a horse’s system on race day.
Baffert’s attorneys said Medina Spirit was treated with an ointment, not injected with the drug, and that the amount of betamethasone found in his system could not have affected his performance in the Derby. The Maryland Jockey Club allowed him to run in the Preakness — he finished third, well behind surprise winner Rombauer — after Baffert agreed to extra testing and monitoring before the race. Medina Spirit died suddenly in December, three months before the KHRC officially stripped him of his Derby victory and awarded it to Mandaloun.
Baffert’s appeal of that decision is scheduled to begin April 18 and could play out over months or even years if it reaches the Kentucky court system. He’s also suing Churchill Downs, home of the Derby, in federal court to overturn a separate two-year suspension issued by the track operator.
These legal dramas surrounding the sport’s most prominent trainer have unfolded at the same time as the final prep races for the May 7 Derby. Top contenders have emerged over the past few weeks, with the last three major preps — the Santa Anita Derby, the Wood Memorial and the Blue Grass Stakes — scheduled for Saturday.
Louisiana Derby winner Epicenter is the most likely Derby favorite for now, though Messier and Forbidden Kingdom will make their cases at Santa Anita and Smile Happy and Zandon will do the same in the Blue Grass. Florida Derby winner White Abarrio and Arkansas Derby winner Cyberknife have also stamped themselves as threats.
“About the only good news that’s come out of this thing is that Baffert’s horses are going to be able to run if they’re good enough,” Moss said. “To me, if Messier looks as good in the Santa Anita Derby as he did in the [February 6] Robert B. Lewis, on paper, the Kentucky Derby will look like a two-horse race with him and Epicenter. It could be a very interesting and entertaining matchup.”
If Messier does advance to Churchill Downs as one of the favorites, Baffert will remain central to the Triple Crown narrative, even in absentia.
He won a race at Santa Anita, his home base, on Saturday, but signs bearing his name were removed from his barns and as of Monday, he was not allowed on the premises. Horses under his care had to be transferred to other trainers or moved away from the track.