Bob Baffert returns to the Preakness as his sport reels again

Bob Baffert returns to the Preakness as his sport reels again

LOS ANGELES — In 2021, horse trainer Bob Baffert faced exile from his sport and national ridicule after his Kentucky Derby-winning horse, Medina Spirit, failed a post-race drug test. It was a scandal that put drug violations and dead horses in the headlines and Baffert in the crosshairs.

In the midst of it, Baffert received a call from a Palm Beach area code. It was former president Donald Trump.

Trump asked him what happened with Medina Spirit, Baffert later recalled. By then, Baffert had abandoned his earlier denials that the horse was given anything that would have set off a test. So he recited to Trump his new credo — that there were mere picograms of the substance in the horse’s system, the result of a salve to treat a rash.

Baffert was accustomed to dealing with local horse reporters, he told Trump. But this was his first time under fire in the national media — and on “Saturday Night Live,” which had recently lampooned the trainer. He found a sympathetic audience in the ex-president, who mused that “people can be vicious” and counseled him on how to carry on: “You know, just nothing happened. Just go on with your job and keep your head up.”

Baffert, famous for sparring with regulators, probably didn’t need advice on stubborn persistence. But in the two years since that conversation, he has indeed cut a Trump-like arc. And when he enters National Treasure at Saturday’s Preakness, Baffert, having served a patchwork of suspensions stemming from the Medina Spirit violation, will make his return to the Triple Crown stage arguably more powerful and more defiant than ever — even as his sport reels from another disastrous main event.

The dark side of Bob Baffert’s reign

Baffert has called himself the victim of “cancel culture,” lamenting what he describes as the unfair demise of his career while working to clear bans and suspensions in Kentucky, New York and elsewhere. He has mostly failed to win in court, but the campaign of attrition appears to have fatigued his loudest critics. And despite his claims of ruin, Baffert’s business has actually thrived thanks to his loyal base: thoroughbred owners who have given him a near-monopoly over elite racing in his home state of California. Now he arrives at Pimlico to a sport in existential crisis and divided by stalled efforts to enact federal regulation of the sport.

In interviews, Baffert’s lead attorney, Clark Brewster, complained of unfair courts and regulators and claimed Baffert was scapegoated by a movement within thoroughbred racing to implement federal oversight of drug violations. “A lot of people were clamoring for more enforcement of horse racing from a medication standpoint, and after the Derby when the lab found 21 picograms in urine — eureka!” said Brewster, referring to the amount of betamethasone detected in Medina Spirit’s sample.

“Baffert was just iconic enough … that everyone wants to take a shot, but no one wants to write the article that says: ‘You know what? This was really overdone,’ ” Brewster added.

The attorney initially raised the prospect of a reporter visiting Baffert at his barn near San Diego before the trainer headed to Maryland for the Preakness. But he later said Baffert would be unavailable for a meeting or phone interview because the trainer was “fully tuned to the details and final prep for the Pimlico horses.”

Taking on ‘the science’

When Medina Spirit tested positive for betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory, it was Baffert’s fifth positive drug test in 13 months and 30th over four decades in racing. He blamed a familiar culprit: “the science.”

“That’s the only thing on this sport — you can follow the rules and still get in trouble because they don’t have the science,” Baffert later testified.

After the Derby, Baffert went on a press tour blaming that science, as well as a conspiracy against him, while insisting he had never given the horse betamethasone or any other ointment. But his longtime veterinarian had documented his use of Otomax, a medication containing betamethasone, on the horse.

Baffert’s shifting stories contributed to the decision to ban him, Churchill Downs Racetrack President Mike Anderson later testified. “It just seemed like it was just a lack of understanding of what his horse was being administered race day or the day before race day,” Anderson said.

Baffert’s suspensions are over; he’s eligible to enter a horse at New York’s Belmont Stakes in June to round out the Triple Crown series. But his fight isn’t over, including an ongoing lawsuit against Churchill Downs and an appeal to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

In legal filings, Baffert has been dire about the effects of the punishments on his business. He claimed in affidavits that the two-year ban from the Derby, in which two of Baffert’s horses started their path to Triple Crowns, “will effectively put me out of business.”

But that was certainly not so in California, where he has long wielded clout in the industry. Citizens there urged racing regulators to levy a lengthy suspension against Baffert. “Mr. Bob Baffert and the Kentucky Derby are not on the agenda,” one commissioner said, and the industry stuck by him. That included, notably, Medina Spirit’s owner, Amr Zedan.

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The Saudi billionaire testified in Baffert’s defense, calling Baffert’s barn “basically the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Four Seasons, if you will, of horses.” And he was among the owners of horses in a race at Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles in February that fully displayed Baffert’s dominance: 14 of the 16 horses that were nominated and all four of the horses that ended up racing were Baffert trainees. Baffert earned roughly $9.7 million in North American races for his owners in 2022, a modest year by his standards but only $500,000 less than he earned in 2019, the last pre-pandemic year before the scandal.

While Baffert dominated his competition in California, his lawyers attempted to refashion his legacy in court. In court filings, his attorneys tallied only “fully adjudicated medication positives” and only those since 2005 — of which by their count there were nine, not 30. They reduced even more drastically the death toll attributed to him. The Washington Post found in 2021 that 74 horses had died in Baffert’s care in California and that his horses have the highest rate of deaths per start among top trainers in the state. In court filings, however, Baffert’s team cited an obscure database tracking only some deaths in recent years and operated by a Kentucky nonprofit to peg the Baffert death toll at five.

Baffert’s actual toll has increased by at least three since his last Derby, records show. Medina Spirit died of a heart attack in December 2021. Then, last July, a 2-year-old horse called Rapacious was euthanized after falling on its back during a workout. And in January, Alsalam, a 3-year-old owned by Zedan, was euthanized following a workout. Veterinary notes describing Alsalam’s death read: “Went wrong pulled up, vanned off.”

No necropsy was performed. Amanda Drummond, an official at the California Horse Racing Board, said that was because Alsalam died at an equine hospital. The board is “presently advancing a regulation” that would require necropsies in those cases, Drummond said.

Brewster called The Post’s count “false” and said it was unfair to monitor all deaths in Baffert’s care. In many cases, he said, “it doesn’t have anything to do with training — it has to do with natural events that occur with all animals that can cause an injury or death.”

Shortly before he left office, Trump signed an act resulting in the creation of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, a regulatory body to oversee drug rules in the sport.

But its anti-doping efforts have stalled, primarily because of legal challenges by the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, an industry group that includes racehorse owners and trainers. HISA is now slated to go into effect Monday, two days after the Preakness.

HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said in an interview Thursday that she is “very confident” the authority will not be delayed further by last-minute legal efforts. Lazarus said HISA will start every trainer with a clean slate in terms of tracking — and punishing — drug violations.

“I would say to any trainer who has proclaimed their innocence and feels like they were wrongly treated by the system … now’s an opportunity to show that you’re doing things the right way,” Lazarus said.

Arthur Hancock III, a Kentucky breeder, is among those horsemen who helped push for the bill. In the wake of the deaths at the Derby, he expressed pessimism about whether the sport can be finally cleaned up. Churchill Downs suspended a trainer of two of the horses indefinitely and in a statement said the deaths, though “anomalies,” were “unacceptable.”

Hancock said the opinion among some horsemen is that “they’re cheating more than ever now” amid a vacuum of enforcement. “Status quo, business as usual — I mean, that’s what it looks like to me,” Hancock said.

Monty Roberts, a retired horse trainer who has sparred with Baffert for years, expressed hope that the sport will be run more strictly under the new authority. In that case, he said, he welcomed Baffert’s return.

“I would love it if he could just compete with everybody on a clean basis,” Roberts said. “Because then you would see how good he is. The way it is now, he wins a race and you say, ‘Oh, I wonder what that horse is on.’ ”

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