What trainer Bob Baffert's suspension means to California racetracks

Trainer Bob Baffert calls Bowl of Soul "a really sweet filly. It's been pretty tough around the house."
Trainer Bob Baffert calls Bowl of Soul "a really sweet filly. It's been pretty tough around the house." (Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Trainer Bob Baffert’s two-year suspension from Churchill Downs rocketed through the horse racing world Wednesday and overshadowed Saturday’s third leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes.

This story is going to be with us for a while as it makes its way through the courts. What does it mean for California tracks? There are confusing aspects to the suspension, which we’ll try to clear up.

Does this mean Baffert won’t have a Kentucky Derby runner for two years?

That’s the intent of Churchill Downs, but a judge likely will provide the short-term answer when Baffert’s legal team undoubtedly asks for a temporary restraining order. The key word there is “temporary.” A TRO is granted to mitigate any harm to an individual before a suit is filed, a jury is picked, a trial is held and a decision is made. Then it can be appealed.

Will other tracks honor the suspension?

Right now, this only applies to tracks owned by Churchill Downs Inc., which, in addition to its signature name racetrack, includes Arlington Park near Chicago, which will close later this year, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Turfway Park in Kentucky and Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania. Any other tracks that would join would do so on a voluntary basis.

Can his horses run under another trainer’s name from the same barn?

The ruling specifically excludes horses from running for any employee of Bob Baffert Racing Stables. Normally, when a trainer gets suspended for a short period, the horses just run under the name of the chief assistant. It’s kind of a wink-wink arrangement. It’s unlikely Baffert would want to test this practice, given the severity of the penalty and scrutiny on him.

How can a track suspend a trainer without due process?

The tracks would claim it’s their right to do what they want. It’s their version of “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” It was somewhat tested two years ago when Stronach Group (which owns Santa Anita) barred Jerry Hollendorfer from running horses at any of its tracks after a series of fatalities. Other tracks, including those in New York, chose to honor the ban. Others, such as Churchill Downs, did not. Hollendorfer went to court and got a TRO to allow him to run at Del Mar. He tried the same thing in Los Angeles and Alameda counties and was denied a TRO. Looking for consistency? You won’t find it.

Can the California Horse Racing Board ban him?

Not without due process. You’ll notice that Baffert has been banned by Churchill Downs, not the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission or the New York State Gaming Commission. The violation did not occur in California, so you can expect the CHRB to allow the Kentucky regulators to make a decision and issue a penalty that most assuredly will be less than what Churchill Downs has imposed. States are bound to reciprocate any penalty issued by another jurisdiction. In other words, the CHRB wants no part of this decision.

Will he be allowed to run at Del Mar in a month?

That’s a good question and one Del Mar officials would surely prefer not to have to answer. But they will have to make a decision. Santa Anita, which only has three weeks left in its current meeting, has decided to wait for the KHRC to conclude its investigation, a smart move with so little racing time left.

Did the medication Medina Spirit tested positive for help him win the Kentucky Derby?

There is no scientific evidence that betamethasone is a performance enhancer. It’s an anti-inflammatory that is legal except that a horse can’t test positive for it on race day. That is because it could hinder veterinarians in their pre-race exams. If a horse has an injury, heat radiates from the affected area. If the problem is treated with an anti-inflammatory such as betamethasone, it would suppress heat and a veterinarian might not discover that a horse is unsound. One possible defense that Baffert’s attorneys will argue before the regulatory agencies is that the rule against betamethasone only applies to it in an injectable form, not an ointment, as Baffert says it was applied to Medina Spirit.

Does this mean that Baffert is done as a trainer?

There is no doubt that his specialty is getting horses ready to join the Kentucky Derby trail. Medina Spirit was his record-setting seventh win. If he were to lose two years of that business, it's unclear how many of his regular owners would come back at the conclusion of the suspension. In the end, Baffert's role in this business will be decided by the owners, not the tracks or courts.

Can Baffert win this case?

That is the ultimate question and it will remain unanswered for likely a couple years.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.