Bob Baffert returns to race in Kentucky for first time since last year’s Derby

Trainer Bob Baffert at Del Mar racetrack in 2021
Trainer Bob Baffert at the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 6, 2021, at Del Mar. He will be on hand for this year’s Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland Race Course, one of the two major tracks in Kentucky where Baffert isn’t serving a two-year ban.
(Horsephotos / Getty Images)

The Commonwealth of Kentucky is the self-proclaimed horse racing capital of the world. It has the most famous racetrack, the most iconic race and more than 450 breeding farms.

But what it didn’t have the last year and a half was the sport’s most famous trainer onsite watching one of his horses run for a lot of money. That all changes Friday, when the two-day Breeders’ Cup is held at Keeneland Race Course.

Bob Baffert is probably better known in Kentucky than he is in his home base of California. Baffert says he loves Kentucky and the people of the state love him back. But he is embroiled in a bitter battle with Churchill Downs Inc., which owns its signature track, as well as Turfway Park and Ellis Park.

CDI put a two-year ban on Baffert after then-Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a medication that’s not legal on race day. There is little belief that the medication played any role in the horse finishing first in the Derby, but some will say rules are rules. The courts eventually will decide how this plays out.

Keeneland is one of the two major tracks in Kentucky that is not owned by CDI. And that’s why he’s here, with Cave Rock, the favorite in Friday’s Juvenile for 2-year-olds. He also has four other Breeders’ Cup starters. After completing a 90-day suspension in early July that was handed down by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, Baffert did run two horses in the fall meeting at Keeneland but did not accompany them.

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Baffert says he is confident he will be welcomed by the people of Kentucky. Others see it as a split decision.

“There are really two strong sides of the fence and very few people in the middle,” said Fred Cowgill, who has been a television sportscaster in Louisville for 36 years. “The people who support him feel like there are multiple layers to this story and it’s not really understood because it’s so complex.

“And there are people on the other side who are convinced what he did was morally and ethically wrong. The Kentucky Derby is a race that is almost holy-like and he did the cardinal sin. They are having a hard time forgiving him for that.”

The situation is confusing to all but the most fervent followers of the sport. There are two separate issues, one with the KHRC, for which Baffert already has served his suspension and the litigation is mostly about getting Medina Spirit’s win restored. The other issue is with Churchill Downs, which as it currently stands won’t allow Baffert to run in next year’s Kentucky Derby or gain qualifying points for the Derby.

If Cave Rock or National Treasure finishes in the top five in Friday’s Juvenile, those Derby qualifying points will be vacated.

“A lot of fans didn’t like what happened to me. But it’s one of those things that you deal with.”

— Bob Baffert

Churchill Downs declined to discuss Baffert’s return to Kentucky and referred to their previous statements on the trainer.


“I’ve talked to people who are familiar with both sides,” said Kenny Rice, a lifelong Kentuckian who will be part of NBC’s broadcast team this weekend. “It has gotten a little personal. He’s 70 miles east of the home of the Kentucky Derby and running on the richest weekend of racing. It’s not like he’s been banned from the state. He’s served his suspension and the state racing commission is allowing him to run.”

Rice brings up another point on how Baffert is viewed.

“There are some people who are glad that Tom Brady has a losing record right now,” Rice said. “But they have an appreciation for what he does.”

Baffert hasn’t achieved the GOAT status of Brady but has a very long list of accomplishments, including two Triple Crowns, six Kentucky Derby wins and 17 Breeders’ Cup wins.

“Success breeds jealousy,” said Lawrence Wetherby, another lifelong Kentuckian who is a banking executive in Lexington and the grandson of a former governor of the state. “He’s been hugely successful in Kentucky and everywhere he’s gone. I do believe there is some jealousy.

Trainer Bob Baffert holds up the winner's trophy after Medina Spirit's Kentucky Derby win on May 1, 2021
Trainer Bob Baffert holds up the winner’s trophy after Medina Spirit’s Kentucky Derby win on May 1, 2021. Medina Spirit was later disqualified after testing positive for a substance that is banned on race days.
(Jeff Roberson/AP)

“He has a great eye and his associates have great eyes. And one thing he does is bring clientele into the business. My general perception of Bob is he is great [for the business]. He’s paid his dues and he’s paid his penance.”

Shortly after word of Medina Spirit’s positive test became public, Baffert found himself the subject of derision. “Saturday Night Live” did a three-minute bit in its “Weekend Update” segment, with Beck Bennett imitating Baffert.

In Kentucky, three companies starting selling a bourbon labeled as “Bobby’s secret horsey stuff,” with a drawing that was clearly meant to represent Baffert holding a syringe and a bottle of liquor. Baffert’s attorneys were able to get a settlement out of those who were producing and distributing the bottles, which included taking them off the market, a letter of apology and a $50,000 donation in Baffert’s name to three equine charities. Baffert did not profit from the settlement.

In the past, Baffert has been one of the most accessible personalities in racing. But he has pulled back a little. On Wednesday, he spoke to a handful of reporters outside his barn.

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“A lot of fans didn’t like what happened to me,” Baffert said. “But it’s one of those things that you deal with. There’s a lot of good people out there. It was tough on my family. I knew when I got that call that my life was going to change, and it did. … Eventually, the story will finally get told, it’s been a long time.”

Baffert’s initial reaction over a year ago might have hurt the perception the public had of him. He was very visible and very angry.

“If you could run it back, I didn’t handle it well because I knew something was wrong,” Baffert said. “It was crazy. But you learn from it. In this game you win or you learn. That’s the way I look at it.”

Baffert will have five opportunities to win or learn over the next two days.