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Judge denies Bob Baffert request to reverse Churchill Downs ban

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Bob Baffert. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

TNS

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A federal judge denied Bob Baffert’s request to lift his two-year suspension by Churchill Downs Inc., ruling that the Hall of Fame trainer did not prove its discipline hurt his business and reputation.

Baffert will miss his second consecutive Kentucky Derby, and per a Churchill Downs rule, he has until Feb. 28 to transfer his Derby contenders to other trainers in order for them to possibly run in the May 6 race. Horses earn Derby qualifying points by finishing in the top five of designated races; any horse trained by Baffert after the February deadline is ineligible to earn points.

Baffert last year transferred Taiba and Messier to former assistant Tim Yakteen for the Derby. Taiba finished 12th and Messier was 15th among 20 horses.

Baffert had sued Churchill Downs following his banishment in June 2021 after a failed postrace drug test by now-deceased colt Medina Spirit, who crossed the finish line first in the 147th Derby. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission ultimately disqualified the colt in February 2022 and suspended Baffert for 90 days for a series of failed tests by his horses.

Baffert argued that Churchill Downs did not give him notice nor explain the suspension. His attorney, Clark Brewster, contended earlier this month that the historic track was subject to state guidelines for due process. U.S. District Court Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings ultimately rejected that argument and said that, as privately owned company, Churchill Downs can set its own disciplinary policies.

“Failing to punish trainers whose horses test positive in marquee races could harm (Churchill Downs, Inc.'s) reputation and the integrity of their races,” Jennings wrote.

A message left with Brewster was not immediately returned.

Among Baffert’s top 3-year-olds this season are Arabian Knight and Cave Rock. Arabian Knight is owned by Saudi Arabian businessman Amr Zedan. Jennings wrote that an affidavit given to the court states that Zedan will move his horses to another trainer if Baffert remained banned by Churchill Downs.

While Baffert is banned from the first of the Triple Crown races, he’s eligible to run horses in Maryland at the Preakness and in New York at the Belmont Stakes. His one-year suspension by the New York Racing Association expired in January.

Churchill Downs had wanted the case dismissed, citing nine failed tests by Baffert-trained horses as justification for disciplining horse racing’s most visible figure. The list of violators includes 2020 Kentucky Oaks third-place finisher Gamine, who was ultimately disqualified.

Medina Spirit failed his test for having in his system the regulated medication corticosteroid betamethasone, which Baffert and Brewster have argued came from an ointment rather than an injection.

Track president Mike Anderson said the decision by Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen stemmed from Baffert’s “refusal to take responsibility for repeat violations.”