Churchill Downs Bans Baffert for Two Years After Medina Spirit Drug Test

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Churchill Downs clarified that its ongoing suspension for Medina Spirit trainer Bob Baffert will last at least two years, after the trainer’s Kentucky Derby-winning horse reportedly had his positive test for the banned drug betamethasone confirmed by a California lab.

According to The New York Times, a University of California-Davis laboratory again found Medina Spirit tested positive for the corticosteroid used to treat joint inflammation in horses. Betamethasone is impermissible at any amount. As a result, Churchill Downs will deny the 68-year-old Baffert an opportunity to enter a horse at the 2022 or 2023 Derby.

Medina Spirit tested positive following the May 9 race. The confirmation, conducted by a lab selected by Baffert and done in accordance with Derby rules, increases the odds that Medina Spirit will become the second winner disqualified in the Derby’s 147-year history. Should disqualification occur, runner-up Mandaloun would be declared the winner, and the $1.86 million winner’s purse would go to Juddmonte Farms, Mandaloun’s owners.

An attorney for Medina Spirit’s owner, Amr Zedan, cautions that it is too early to assume next steps. Clark Brewster told the Times the UC Davis lab didn’t assess whether other compounds might indicate there was an “inadvertent and materially inconsequential contamination.”

Churchill Downs Incorporated, a publicly traded entertainment company that owns and operates the famed horse racing complex, took the first action by imposing the minimum two-year suspension. Churchill Downs has a vested stake in ensuring the safety of horses and jockeys. Especially in light of betting and gambling considerations, the track also has a firm interest in the races’ integrity.

Churchill Downs can also rightfully consider Baffert’s behavior and recent history. After initially denying Medina Spirit broke rules and blaming “cancel culture” for a rush to judgment, Baffert acknowledged his horse broke the rules. Otomax, an anti-fungal ointment that contains betamethasone, was used to treat Medina Spirit’s skin lesion, he said. Even if Baffert was genuinely unaware Medina Spirit had been treated with betamethasone, Churchill Downs could justify his punishment on grounds that, as the trainer, he should have known. In announcing the suspension, Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen highlighted Baffert’s prior record with positive test results.

Baffert would face difficult odds challenging the suspension in court. Judges generally permit private (non-governmental) associations to punish members and participants so long as those punishments are determined in accordance with rules and not arbitrary.

The lab’s confirmation could bring about other legal consequences.

Second, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission could punish Baffert for training a horse that violated competition rules. The KHRC has the same basic interests as Churchill Downs in terms of safety and fair play. It has not yet taken any action against Baffert and says it is still investigating. According to Brewster, KHRC will involve another lab to evaluate the presence and significance of any compounds in the blood and urine. The fact that there was a contamination, irrespective of its competitive impact, might prompt the KHRC to punish. The Derby is the most famous race in the sport; ensuring the race’s credibility is of paramount interest to KHRC.

Third, 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—is less likely to lift its suspension of Baffert and his assistants. The NYRA issued its suspension last month in the wake of the Derby.

Fourth, attorneys representing aggrieved Derby bettors will view the UC Davis confirmation as strengthening their cases. Last month, Michael Beychok, Justin Wunderler, Michael Meegan and Keith Mauer sued Baffert, Baffert Racing Stables and Zed Racing Stables in a Los Angeles federal court. In a separate case in the same court, Jeffrey Kaufman sued the same group. These cases, which seek certification as class actions, allege violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and the California Control of Profits of Organized Crime Act.

Baffert and his associates, the plaintiffs charge, knowingly duped bettors by entering Medina Spirit under the false pretense of compliance. Bettors relied on those assurances when placing their money on the runner-up, Mandaloun. Had they known Medina Spirt enjoyed a (possible) competitive advantage, they would have bet differently. Even if Mandaloun is declared the winner, the Derby’s bets have already been settled.

These cases face hurdles. For one, the bettors aren’t in contract with Baffert or Zed Stables. It’s unclear they have standing to sue Baffert or Zed Stables in the absence of Baffert or Zed owing them duties. Also, those who bet on sports assume foreseeable risks. Breaking rules to gain competitive advantages is hardly a new phenomenon.

While the Baffert controversy plays out, the horse racing world continues. The Belmont Stakes will run this Saturday.

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