Bob Baffert sues Churchill Downs, others to be allowed to run in Kentucky Derby

Trainer Bob Baffert watches workouts at Churchill Downs.
Bob Baffert wants the courts to allow his horses to run in this year’s Kentucky Derby despite his two-year suspension.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

In an expected move that will heighten the uncertainty about who can run in this year’s Kentucky Derby, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert filed suit in federal court against Churchill Downs Inc., chief executive Bill Carstanjen and board chair Alex Rankin, to allow him to run horses in the world’s most famous thoroughbred race.

The complaint, filed Tuesday in the Western District of Kentucky, alleges that Baffert’s constitutional right to due process was violated when Churchill Downs suspended him for two years after the positive drug test for last year’s winner Medina Spirit.

“The notion that Churchill Downs … could unilaterally ban a trainer by an edict coupled in a press release without having the facts or any semblance of due process should arouse outrage in any fair-minded person,” said Clark Brewster, who is representing Baffert in this matter.

Baffert’s long-time attorney, Craig Robertson, has excluded himself from this situation because his firm also has Churchill Downs as a client.


Churchill Downs was swift with its rebuttal.

“The lawsuit filed by Bob Baffert is disappointing but certainly not surprising,” CDI said in a statement. “His claims are meritless and consistent with his pattern of failed drug tests, denials, excuses and attempts to blame others and identify loopholes in order to avoid taking responsibility for his actions.

Medina Spirit has been stripped of his Kentucky Derby win and trainer Bob Baffert has been suspended after the horse tested positive for a banned drug.

“These actions have harmed the reputations of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs and the entire thoroughbred racing industry. Churchill Downs will fight this baseless lawsuit and defend our company’s rights. What’s at stake here is the integrity of our races, the safety of horses and the trust of the millions of fans and bettors who join us every year on the first Saturday in May.”

The one thing that has been certain the last year is that the winner of last year’s Kentucky Derby would be decided in the courts. After more than eight months, Medina Spirit was disqualified last week by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission after testing positive for betamethasone, a legal anti-inflammatory medication that is banned for use on race day. Mandaloun, the second-place finisher, was named the winner.

In a highly unusual ruling, the KHRC did not stay Baffert’s 90-day suspension, which is scheduled to begin March 8. If it is enforced, Baffert’s penalty would be in effect throughout the country and Baffert would have to vacate his barn at Santa Anita. Baffert’s attorneys have filed suit to stop the suspension and have precedent on their side as stays are almost always granted upon appeal.

Prolific thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert capped off a rough week with his horses winning the Saudi Derby and finishing second in the Saudi Cup.

Baffert’s attorneys have argued that the rule against betamethasone only applies when it is injected into the joints or other parts of a horse, not when applied through an ointment to treat a rash. The KHRC disagreed.

“The facts are clear and Churchill Downs knows them but refuses to acknowledge them,” Brewster said. “Churchill Downs knows the post-race test report occurred as a result of the use of a harmless ointment known as Otomax. They know it was prescribed by Medina Spirit’s treating veterinarian and properly and timely reported to the data bank the day it was dispensed. They know no rule was violated and the ointment could never have enhanced Medina Spirit’s performance.”

Experts previously contacted by The Times doubt that the amount found in Medina Spirit’s system would have had any effect on his performances. The biggest obstacle is public perception, that a rule is a rule, regardless of its consequences.

“This case and the events of the last eight months are about more than just me and ability to do the work I love,” Baffert said. “If powerful forces can block me from competing, they can do this to anyone. This is a fight for the integrity of our great sport, and we have the facts, the law and truth on our side.”

Bob Baffert has cultivated the story of a horse racing dynasty built from humble roots. He now faces scrutiny about short cuts he’s alleged to have taken.

Medina Spirit died on Dec. 6 following a workout at Santa Anita. A necropsy did not determine an exact cause of death; though it contained several factors that were consistent with a cardiac event, it could not exclude other explanations. No drugs, other than legal ones reported to the state, were found in his system.

This weekend is among the first series of win-and-you’re-in races for the Kentucky Derby. Baffert is currently not allowed to accumulate points, meaning if his owners want in the Kentucky Derby they will have to hire another trainer. But few have defected, and Baffert has two horses in Saturday’s San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.

Now it will be up to the courts to help determine the starting field for this year’s Kentucky Derby.