Baffert Belmont Ban Leaves Trainer With Limited Legal Levers

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The New York Racing Association Inc.—a not-for-profit that operates the Belmont Park, Saratoga Race Course and other horseracing tracks in New York—announced on Monday that it had suspended Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and his assistants from entering any horses. The suspension is described as indefinite pending the results of an “ongoing investigation in Kentucky.”

Unless Baffert seeks and obtains a court order to lift NYRA’s suspension, he’ll be barred from entering Kentucky Derby Winner Medina Spirit in the Belmont Stakes June 5 and at other New York competitions.

The suspension doesn’t appear to be predicated on any specific violation of NYRA rules or New York law. Instead, as NYRA expressed in a statement, the suspension partly reflects Baffert’s May 9 suspension by Churchill Downs in the aftermath of post-race blood sample of Medina Spirit showing betamethasone, a corticosteroid used to treat joint inflammation in horses. Baffert initially denied his horse was treated with betamethasone and blamed “cancel culture” for a rush to judgment. A day later he acknowledged that, upon further review, Medina Spirit had been treated with Otomax, an anti-fungal ointment that contains betamethasone.

NYRA also cites other “failed drug tests” of Baffert’s horses in the past, including in Kentucky, California and Arkansas, as grounds to suspend him. “In order to maintain a successful thoroughbred racing industry in New York, NYRA must protect the integrity of the sport for our fans, the betting public and racing participants,” NYRA chief executive David O’Rourke wrote. “That responsibility demands the action taken today in the best interests of thoroughbred racing.”

Baffert (and his assistants) could seek a restraining order from a judge against NYRA. If obtained, the order would prohibit NYRA from enforcing its suspension—meaning Medina Spirit and other horses trained by Baffert could enter Belmont, Saratoga and other New York races. Baffert could credibly argue he’d suffer irreparable harm—a requirement for a restraining order—since once the races are run, they aren’t re-run. Baffert could further maintain that denying him any chance is unreasonable and excessive. He could underscore how the Preakness permitted Medina Spirit to race after Baffert consented to prerace testing. Baffert could logically ask why can’t NYRA offer such an arrangement.

One major legal hurdle for Baffert is that while NYRA sounds like a quasi-governmental entity, it is a private entity. NYRA’s status as non-governmental is crucial under the law. A government entity must adhere to due process and other Constitutional safeguards.

Here, NYRA has punished Baffert without a hearing and, it seems, without notice or even a finding of a rule violation.

A government agency can’t act that way.

A private association? Different story.

Typically, so long as a private association applies its own rules in a non-arbitrary way, courts will deem application of those rules lawful. Here, NYRA could insist that Baffert’s conduct shows he is willing to break rules that might endanger the safety of jockeys and horses, and deter betting and other economic activity tied to the perception of fair play and honest competition within races.

The legal analysis, however, becomes more complicated if the person punished by a private association has a contractual relationship or is a member of a union that negotiates with the association. Unless Baffert has applicable contractual or labor rights with NYRA, he’d face difficult odds in obtaining a restraining order.

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