Churchill Downs tries to erase Bob Baffert, but he'll have his say in Kentucky Derby | Opinion

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Bob Baffert's barn at Churchill Downs in previous years. It is Barn 33.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the maze of identical wood and cinder block stables that cover the Churchill Downs backstretch, Barn 33 is always easy to find during Kentucky Derby week.

For almost a quarter century, it has been a constant hub for fans and news media members leading up to race day mostly because of its white-haired occupant who had not just become synonymous with America’s most important race but was widely recognized as the face of the sport.

On Monday, however, Bob Baffert was nowhere to be found. Even the plaques commemorating six Baffert-trained Derby winners who once occupied those stalls in Barn 33 had been taken down. This year, every trace of him at Churchill Downs has been erased.

Imagine if Augusta National banned Tiger Woods or Wimbledon no longer acknowledged Roger Federer. That is essentially what Churchill Downs did last year after Medina Spirit, who would have been Baffert’s record-setting seventh Derby winner, tested positive for the anti-inflammatory betamethasone and was officially disqualified in February.

After a string of high-profile positive tests in the Baffert barn, which had been chalked up to contamination and careless mistakes, Medina Spirit was the last straw. Horse racing’s problems are myriad and its culture of drug cheats is as old as time immemorial. But you don’t mess with the Kentucky Derby.

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Bob Baffert's 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit failed a postrace drug test.
Bob Baffert's 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit failed a postrace drug test.

Whether you buy Baffert's explanation that Medina Spirit's positive test was the result of a topical ointment to treat a skin condition and not a performance-enhancing injectable, Churchill Downs was not going to be made a fool. So it banned Baffert for two years, which includes a prohibition on any horse in his barn from earning ranking points to get in the Kentucky Derby.

On the surface, that’s a pretty severe ban — one that Baffert is still fighting in federal court. But in practical application, it falls into a squishy area of racing where horses are frequently moved from one trainer to another.

Which brings us back to the Churchill backstretch on Monday morning, where a man named Tim Yakteen was surrounded by more than a dozen reporters and asked to pause for a moment before they started firing questions.

"I’m just going to take a video,” he said, pulling out his cell phone. “My boys will never believe it.”

Yakteen, 57, is not the kind of horse trainer who does press conferences. Last year, he won 17 races, most of them with claimers — horses that can be bought by anyone on race day for a set price. His big score for the year was a stakes race in California with a $100,000 purse.

That’s not a knock on Yakteen's horsemanship or his operation. Guys like him are a huge part of the day-to-day racing business when nobody but the serious bettors are paying attention. He’s just not the kind of trainer that is likely to get sent a potential Derby contender, much less two of them.

But Yakteen is here this week, in the simplest of terms, because Baffert is not.

When it became clear earlier in late March that Baffert wouldn’t get a legal remedy to his suspension in time for this year’s Derby, several of his key horses went to Yakteen. Two of them, Taiba and Messier, will be in the starting gate Saturday.

If either one wins, Yakteen will be recorded for posterity as the trainer. But it will be impossible to shake the perception that Baffert is back home in Southern California still pulling the strings on the race he owns from 2,000 miles away.

“I think he outlined (the plan) very carefully,” Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas told the Louisville Courier-Journal last week. “I think they had a crash course, for sure. So I think (Yakteen) will follow, I'll bet you, to the letter. He'd be crazy not to. You're talking about a guy who came in here every year with extreme power. I would guess that (Yakteen) is not going to make any decisions.”

Mind you, Lukas wasn’t being critical. He is one of Baffert’s good friends in the business and does not believe Medina Spirit was doped based on the facts that have emerged. He's just saying what everyone is thinking: Baffert isn’t at Churchill this year, but he’s in the race. Of course he is — even if nobody connected to the horse wants to talk about it.

“Tim is a very accomplished horseman,” said Gary Young, the racing manager and bloodstock advisor for Zedan Racing, which owned Medina Spirit and now has Taiba in this year’s field. “We’re fine with that. We're fine with him and there’s no trepidations there at all.”

Of course, Young wouldn’t really get into details about why Yakteen was chosen, even if the answer is self-evident. Before going out on his own as a trainer, Yakteen had a couple stints as an assistant in the Baffert barn. They remain good friends. Yakteen may not have Baffert’s magic touch, but he’s going to do things by the Baffert book. When Baffert’s 90-day suspension by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission is over and he can resume training (California, Baffert's home base, honors the suspension through a reciprocity agreement), the horses are almost certainly going right back in his barn.

“Everybody has their own opinion,” said Yakteen, who insists he's had no communication with Baffert since the horses were transferred. “I’m not looking to sway anybody else’s thoughts. I’m going to enjoy myself here and my journey.”

It’s certainly not a ride he would have ever expected. Thanks to a father in the Army, Yakteen grew up in Germany playing soccer and running track. His life collided with horse racing when he followed his sister to California and got a job at the closest place he could find to where he was living: Los Alamitos racetrack. That’s where his world collided with Baffert, who was training quarter horses and just on the verge of hitting it big.

Interestingly enough, Yakteen never came to Kentucky with Baffert. His most relevant Derby experience was in 1994 while working under the legendary Charlie Whittingham, who trained Strodes Creek to a second-place finish.

None of that really prepared him for what he faced Monday. Even his wife Millie Ball, who is a reporter and commentator for horse racing-centric XBTV, couldn’t quite coach him up.

"There’s a big difference sitting in the second chair and sitting in the first chair,” Yakteen said. “I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t realize it was going to be like this.”

Like this, of course, was where Baffert has always been the most comfortable: Telling stories, handing out one-liners to the media, trying to make horse racing seem hip and fun. Yakteen was not built for that. His answers were short and halted. He offered as little information as possible. And whenever the Baffert topic came up, he pretty much avoided it at all costs.

But you can’t blame Yakteen. He’s an accidental tourist in this story — even if he has a legitimate chance to be a Derby-winning trainer.

“It’s the pinnacle of any trainers’ career to compete in the Derby,” Yakteen said. "The training aspect has been very easy. I think (the rest of) this is something that’s new to me.”

Without Baffert around, it's new to everyone else, too.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kentucky Derby ban can't totally omit Bob Baffert from Churchill Downs