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Derby Details 2021 Edition 17

Son of a trainer Tom Carley with Dr Stephen Sinatra in Lexington KY Circa 2009

Derby Details 2021 Edition 17

Leaving No Legacy

By Tom Carley

May 28, 2021

I have intentionally not written a column since the Kentucky Derby.  I thought it best to allow my emotions to diminish and be able to report on this in a well thought out and unbiased fashion.

Even before the results of the positive test for Medina Sprit was made public 8 days after the Derby, I found myself having the same struggles as I have in the past.  Once again the performance of a Bob Baffert horse did not pass the eye test (see Derby Details 2021 Edition 11  The Baffert horse went to the lead and did not tire, and the other horses were not able to overtake the horse.

For the first time in my life, I immediately turned the set off when the horses crossed the finish line.  I did not watch the trophy presentation, interviews and other celebrations that accompany the Derby win.  While this race did not pass the eye test and confirmed my prior beliefs about the actions of Bob Baffert, little did I realize how this race would profoundly change the sport. 

The Press Conference

News broke of the positive test the Saturday after the Derby.  Twitter lit up like the Fourth of July on Saturday evening with news of the positive test.   Many commented that this news should not have been made public and point to the fact that a positive test is usually not announced until the second (or split) sample is tested and the results received.  However, that argument is not valid in this case as:

  1. This is a Triple Crown race and if a disqualification of the horse that crossed the line first in the Derby was to occur, then the horse that crossed the line second in the Derby needs to be made aware of this fact.  Specifically, the trainer of the horse that ran second (Mandaloun) had announced Mandaloun would not compete in the second leg of the Triple Crown.  Now that there was a chance Mandaloun was going to be named the Derby winner, he needed to have the chance to reconsider the decision as he now had a chance to pursue the Triple Crown.  Not only would winning the Triple Crown have historical consequences, but also winning the Triple Crown would drastically increase the horse’s value. 
  2. The word started to spread as the racing office told those owners and trainers that ran first through fifth in the Derby that their earnings would not be distributed (or held up as it is called in the industry).  This is only done in the event that a horse had a flawed test.  

Bob Baffert flew from California to address the situation once his assistant trainer was given notice of the positive test by Churchill Downs.    He and his attorney held a press conference Sunday morning.  Within the press conference, Baffert stated several times that the horse had not been treated with the substance (I will remain generic as a drug explanation would be an entirely different column).  

When asked the legal threshold for the drug, Baffert stopped and asked his attorney to answer the question.  The attorney did not take over and Baffert was fed the information from someone on his staff that the threshold was 10 picograms.  It turns out the level is 0 picograms effective August 2020.   He stated, “horse racing has a problem, but that problem is not Bob Baffert”.  My eyeballs almost leapt out of my head when I heard this quote. Then…

Monday morning: Baffert appeared on Fox News Channel and blamed the attention and potential disqualification on a cancel culture.  Again, he stated he has done nothing wrong and that the drug had not been given to the horse.

Tuesday: Baffert blamed the contamination on a groom urinating in the horse’s hay after using the drug elsewhere.  A problem I have with this excuse is that the horses get their hay from an elevated hay bag and not the ground.

Wednesday: Finally, Baffert revealed that the horse had been treated with a skin issue and the ointment used to treat the rash had the drug in it.  Some things to consider

  1. The drug must be prescribed by a veterinarian.  What vet in his right mind would prescribe a drug that is banned to a horse so close to the most scrutinized race of the year?    
  2. How did you know or are not made aware that your only Derby horse was treated with the drug?  Especially before he shot his mouth off in the press conference that the horse was never treated with the drug.
  3. The box the ointment comes in clearly states in large print on the front of the box the drug’s name. 
  4. This is the same identical drug the Baffert-trained Gamine tested positive for in last year’s Kentucky Oaks– as well as in Arkansas along with another Baffert trained horse.
  5. A thought I keep having is that Baffert would not be dumb enough to keep using a drug he knows is getting detected unless the drug is being used to mask another illegal drug.  This is what we saw in the baseball steroid incident and is also consistent with the type of drugs Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro were using.

The first thing any attorney tells a client charged with a high profile crime is to keep quiet and not comment.  Baffert destroyed what little credibility he had left with his series of statements. 

Baffert then announced that he would not attend the Preakness.  This was nothing more than an attempt to avoid the questions he would be bombarded with by the media.

Banning from Churchill & NYRA tracks   

After Baffert’s press conference Sunday morning, Churchill Downs issued a press release Sunday afternoon.  Within the press release, Churchill Downs announced that Bob Baffert was prohibited from entering or racing his horses at Churchill Downs owned racetracks.  Many Baffert supporters/apologists cried foul and claimed the trainer was being denied his first amendment rights.  While I could see someone making that argument (at the time, but not now that I later found out that Baffert’s attorneys are the ones keeping the second sample from being tested) it should be noted that racetracks can deny admittance to anyone.  A precedent for this was set in California when trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was banned from racing at Santa Anita racetrack as well as all racetracks owned by the Stronach Group after his horses suffered injuries (some died) in 2019.

Baffert had four horses that ran in the Preakness weekend cards.  His horses that ran in the Black Eyed Susan (fillies) and Preakness had to undergo three drug tests prior to competing.  His fourth horse ran in a non-graded race and the media never reported whether this horse was subjected to the same testing. 

The horses all failed to win.  The heavily favored horse in the non-graded race was beaten by nine lengths.  While Medina Spirit did run 3rd in the Preakness, Concert Tour ran 9th in the Preakness and Beautiful Gift ran 7th after being sent off as the favorite in the BlackEyed Susan.

The “clean” Baffert horses sure did not run like they had previously.  Coincidentally, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) announced early the week after the Preakness that it was enacting a similar ban on Baffert and his horses from Belmont Park, Saratoga Racecourse and Aqueduct that Churchill Downs had done.  This meant that Baffert would not even be allowed to have a horse run in the third race of the Triple Crown or the lucrative stakes races on the Belmont Day card.  

How the Industry Allowed This to Happen 

It has been noted many times that Baffert had over 30 positive tests for banned drugs before the latest episode.  A major question being asked is why Baffert was never severely punished in the past.  He was suspended for 12 months when he was a quarter horse trainer, yet he never has served a major suspension.  

The answer is simple.  The industry allowed him to do this.

Bob Baffert is charming and to many, the face of the thoroughbred industry.  If you walked in Times Square and asked people to name a horse racing trainer the answer you would almost unanimously get (from those who actually could name one) is Bob Baffert.  Baffert works the media well and his one liners serve as deflectors from the real issues that face him and the industry.  

Even after all the evidence with the Kentucky Derby positive test, you have a majority of those who defend Baffert and either claim Baffert is being targeted by those jealous of his success or that this is some sort of insider job for revenge.  Personally, I have found that these people simply ignore facts and it is impossible to have an intelligent, fact based discussion with these people.   I found myself actually going as far as resigning from Facebook groups as I was being harassed for having the audacity to say that Baffert’s horses do not pass the eye test.

While the article I wrote previously (the link is provided earlier in this article) details these violations in greater detail—as well as my source– let’s review the times the racing industry has refused to hand down any substantial punishment to Baffert:

  • Less than 60 days ago, Baffert was almost totally given a pass by the Arkansas Racing Commission when he had not one, but two horses test positive on the Arkansas Derby 2020 card for the same drug for which his horse had tested positive after the 2021 Derby.  The Arkansas Racing Commission overturned the stewards’ decision to suspend Baffert; as well the ARC reinstated the wins for both horses that tested positive.  When I called the ARC to convey my disagreement with the decision in the days following the announcement, the phone was forwarded to someone’s personal cell phone and the message not returned.
  • Baffert had a horse test positive for the same drug in the 2020 Kentucky Oaks.  The stewards chose to disqualify the horse, but chose NOT to suspend Baffert.
  • The California Horse Racing Board chose to overturn the positive test Justify had after winning the 2018 Santa Anita Derby be ignored.  This was done in a closed door session.  It should be noted that one of the key members of the CHRB is an owner who had horses with Bob Baffert.
  • Baffert has never been suspended for any of his 30 drug violations.

Sound people would ask why this continues to occur.  I can offer a few suggestions.

Weak Media The media that cover horse racing work for publications which are supported by advertisers who have a vested interest in seeing the support thrive.  Taking a stand and saying something controversial about a leading trainer might result in the loss of advertisers.  These weak media members may be more interested in covering up for Baffert than reporting things in a non-biased fashion.  One example of this is way the media openly rooted for the American Pharaoh Triple Crown.  A writer should just cover the story, not worry about getting his/her picture taken with a horse and openly writing in columns how they hope a certain horse will win.

The media has assumed the role of Baffert defender.  One Eclipse Award winning writer went as far as to post on a Face Book group devoted to the Kentucky Derby a link to the database of steward rulings regarding ALL rules violations and made the statement that Steve Asmussen had 80 violations while Baffert had less than half of that. 

A review of the database showed that Asmussen had less than 6 drug violations in the last 5 years and most of the violations were for administrative violations such as not having a horse to the paddock in time for a race, running a hose without blinkers, not having papers in the office, entering in a race the horse was not eligible for, non-disclosure of a gelded horse, etc.   

She did the same with trainers such as Brad Cox.  Never did she disclose that the other trainers had less than 10 violations for drugs in the last 5 years, nor did she disclose the following:

  1. Baffert’s violations per starter greatly exceed any of the other trainers listed in the report.
  2. Baffert’s violations were almost exclusively for drug violations.
  3. The report did not even list the Baffert’s drug violations that were overturned while it did list Steve Asmussen’s overturned drug violations.  This is a result of the way the California Horse racing Board tried to cover up Baffert’s transgressions. Compare that to Louisiana which listed the original charge against Asmussen and that it was dismissed due to the split sample coming back negative or other mitigating reason. 

I questioned her on this.  She responded that she was trying to counter all of the people that “think we should go after Baffert with pitchforks”.  I replied that she was not reporting the facts.  Daily Racing Form correspondent Jay Privman (not the person referred to above) is also a notorious defender of Baffert.  His comments, articles and tweets speak for themselves.

Baffert Fills Races California racing has been on the decline for years.  Recent cards at Santa Anita have been full of 5-horse fields.  Baffert is a trainer that in the past (he trains much fewer horses now) would enter horses to allow a race to fill.  If the CHRB had suspended or banned Baffert they would only add to the challenge of having enough horses to run races.  There were days earlier this meet where race dates had to be cancelled under the guise of preserving the turf course.   If Santa Anita had enough horses, they could have run all the races on dirt those days.

Fear of Legal Challenges & Cost of Defense Most trainers accept their penalties, serve their brief suspension and life goes on.  Typically people will appear in front of the stewards and agree if they would not appeal the sanction, then the penalty will be reduced and the violator can somewhat select the time they will be suspended.  However, Bob Baffert has proven that he will take the stewards and racing boards to court to appeal the decisions.  This is an expense that the already cash strapped racing organizations have to absorb.   This intimidation by Baffert and his attorneys is a viable explanation.

The most recent example of these legal responses is the fact that Baffert’s attorneys have kept the second sample from the 2021 Kentucky Derby from being tested.  

The time has come for the industry to begin enforcing all rules in the same fashion, no matter who the offender is or where the violation occurred.  Horse racing needs to convince the public that all of the rules are not only being enforced, but also being enforced uniformly across the board.  Thankfully, I have not heard many people say they have lost confidence in the sport and are seeking other forms of gambling, but if the industry does not change that will be the next step.

Furthermore, we deserve an answer as to Baffert’s real reason for using the drug in question.  Is the use to treat skin disorders, enhance performance or to mask the use of another drug.  

Where is Baffert’s legacy of trainers?

Last Saturday’s Preakness winner was trained by Mike McCarthy.  McCarthy was a formed Todd Pletcher assistant trainer.  This led me to the following question:

Horse Racing has a pattern of a leading trainer’s key assistants going off on their own and becoming trainers.  How come none of Bob Baffert’s assistants have started their own training operations?

Wayne Lukas has built a huge legacy of former assistant trainers who have become successful trainers on their own.  This includes Todd Pletcher, Kieran McLaughlin, Bobby Barnett, Mike Maker, Dallas Stewart to name a few.  He always tells those to give to the next generation in hopes of making our sport better.

Todd Pletcher has seen former assistants such as Mike McCarthy and Michelle Nihei start their own training stables.   Jack Sisterson won a graded race two weeks ago.  He used to be an assistant for Doug O’Neil.

Yet, Bob Baffert has never produced a trainer that I could find record of.  Why is this?  Is it because the Baffert barn does not use traditional horseman skills that the assistant could replicate?  Is it that the employees know Baffert uses substances that they would not be able to get?   Is it that owners would not leave Baffert to follow the assistant to his new barn?

The more we peel back the onion in this Baffert situation, the more questions we have.   I call for racing to do whatever is necessary to give the bettors the information they need to know that all races are being conducted fairly. 

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