News Analysis: Why Churchill Downs extended the ban on trainer Bob Baffert

Trainer Bob Baffert walks along the track while one of his horses cools down from a workout.
Churchill Downs Inc. extended its two-year ban on Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert for another 1½ years through 2024.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)
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Imagine having your driver’s license suspended, serving that suspension, and then being told the suspension has been extended because you haven’t admitted that you committed those driving offenses you were charged with two years ago.

Imagine heading into court and being offered a plea deal that will greatly reduce your sentence, but you have to admit you did the crime, which you believe you didn’t commit. Your heart tells you no way, but your head tells you the smart move is to not roll the dice.

Imagine a more serious crime that you might or might not have committed that has landed you in prison. You are up for parole, but the parole board believes a person has to own up to the crime they allegedly committed to get released, even if they steadfastly believe they are innocent.


These scenarios are not perfectly analogous but are close to the situation trainer Bob Baffert finds himself in after Churchill Downs Inc. extended its two-year ban on the Hall of Fame horse trainer by another 1½ years until 2025.

Baffert has not shown enough contrition or accepted responsibility, Churchill Downs says. Baffert responds: “In the interest of the sport we all love, I have made no public comments on this unfortunate episode for an extended period of time, so the suggestion that I ‘continue to peddle a false narrative’ is patently false.”

When the initial ban was announced, Churchill Downs said it was a hard two-year sentence and that it would be evaluated at the end of this year’s Derby meeting. And its decision was to extend.

Bob Baffert was first suspended for two years in 2021 after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a medication that wasn’t legal on race day.

July 3, 2023

As with most everything surrounding this two-year battle of wills and personalities, more questions than answers remain. Here are some of them.


Why was Baffert suspended?

The ban came after Medina Spirit won the 2021 Kentucky Derby but tested positive for betamethasone, a legal medication prohibited on race day. Baffert preempted an announcement by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission with an angry news conference outside his barn. He said he had no idea how it got in the horse’s system. He also went on an ill-advised national tour, saying on Fox News that he was a victim of “cancel culture.”


“If I had to do anything different, I wouldn’t have had a press conference,” Baffert told The Times last year. “But it was out there and [the media] was waiting. … I was trying to get ahead of it. I was convinced after talking to my veterinarians that [the positive] was impossible. Then it dawned on them 48 hours later, be careful with the [ointment] Otomax.”

Baffert and his attorneys have argued that treating a horse with a topical ointment that contains betamethasone, such as Otomax, is legal and that the rule was targeting injections. Medina Spirit was being treated for a rash on his hind quarter.


How successful have the challenges been?

The legal defense has been unsuccessful on all the Kentucky cases, although a subsequent two-year ban in New York was cut to one year. Baffert ran National Treasure in this year’s Belmont Stakes after the horse won the Preakness three weeks earlier.

Baffert made a point to several media members Monday that he has no current litigation against Churchill Downs. It remains to be seen whether that changes.

Bob Baffert, center, and jockey John Velazquez help hoist the Woodlawn Vase after winning the Preakness Stakes.
(Julia Nikhinson / Associated Press)


How has Baffert done during his ban?

Baffert‘s horses had no drug positives in those two years. He has had two musculoskeletal deaths. One was earlier this year while training at Los Alamitos, where the horses are handled by an assistant trainer. The other was a high-profile breakdown in a stakes race at Pimlico Race Course on Preakness day in May.

He has two non-musculoskeletal deaths at Los Alamitos, one in which a horse reared up twice after leaving the track, lost his balance and fell on his back, and another death because of a respiratory issue.

He had one more death, and it couldn’t be any bigger. Medina Spirit was working out Dec. 6, 2021, at Santa Anita, collapsed on the track and was dead when veterinarians arrived. It is classified as a sudden death. The necropsy found no drugs that weren’t supposed to be there, and the death was consistent with a heart attack, but that could not be made an official cause. The death was determined to be inconclusive, which happens about half the time in non-musculoskeletal necropsies.


Hasn’t Churchill Downs been under fire lately?

The racetrack just finished a very tumultuous Kentucky Derby when nine horses died in the 10 days before the race. In addition, five Derby horses had to be scratched. Racing was halted at the track at the request of the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority, and Churchill Downs moved its meeting to Ellis Park. Training was allowed to continue at Churchill. The number of deaths is now up to at least 13.

Churchill Downs remains one of the least transparent tracks when it comes to horse fatalities. It does not allow its fatality statistics to be made public by the Equine Injury Database, like almost every track in California and all in New York. When the track first acknowledged the surge in deaths before the Derby, it ignored a paddock death. It later recognized all the deaths when it moved its racing schedule to Ellis Park.


Has public sentiment shifted on Baffert?

If social media can be indicative of public reaction, more fans are rallying around Baffert with the sentiment that he has served his sentence and it’s time to move on. Predictably, animal rights groups applauded the move by Churchill Downs. Every trainer contacted by The Times declined to comment on the issue, much as they have for two years. The group that owns Santa Anita, Golden Gate and other tracks, 1st Racing, also declined to comment.


Will this affect Baffert’s ability to race at other tracks?

Baffert can race at any track in the world that is not owned by Churchill Downs Inc. The CDI tracks, besides Churchill Downs, include Turfway Park and Ellis Park, both in Kentucky; the Fair Grounds in New Orleans; Colonial Downs in Virginia; and Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania.

Baffert will have his usual barn at Del Mar, when it opens July 21.

Air has cleared and Saturday’s Belmont Stakes will be run. National Treasure hopes to break four-year streak of no horse winning two legs of Triple Crown.

June 9, 2023

He’s also welcome at the signature summer meet at Saratoga Race Course near Albany, N.Y.

“Bob Baffert completed a lengthy suspension from [New York Racing Assn.] tracks in January, and is able to fully participate in all training and racing activities here at Belmont Park and at Saratoga Race Course, where the 2023 summer meet begins on July 13,” said Patrick McKenna, vice president of communications for NYRA.


What happens next?

That’s the real question and also the most unanswerable. It’s unknown whether any back-channel deal can be made between Baffert and Churchill Downs. There is every indication this is more than personal, especially by the track. Litigation is always a possibility, although both sides likely want to avoid it.

Baffert served his 90-day suspension from Kentucky last year, so no state regulatory bodies are involved. The trainer continues to fight to get the disqualification of Medina Spirit overturned, but that is unrelated to his ban from the Kentucky Derby.


It seems as if this horse racing serial still has more episodes.