Bob Baffert and the owner of Churchill Downs racetrack are squaring off for what is shaping up to be a pivotal courtroom battle over the company’s two-year ban of the Hall of Fame trainer following a positive drug test by his charge, Medina Spirit, the winner of last year’s Kentucky Derby.
It’s not clear when the battle will be joined, but New York Times racing writer Joe Drape reported this week that he had obtained a copy of “a wide-ranging draft complaint” that Baffert’s legal team is threatening to file against Churchill Downs Inc., the owner of its namesake racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky, and many other gambling enterprises.
Among other things, according to the Times, the complaint argues that Baffert’s right to due process was violated by the ban, because it was imposed before the positive test for betamethasone, a legal therapeutic corticosteroid administered to relieve joint inflammation, was adjudicated. As a result, it says, he has been unlawfully excluded from Churchill Downs and America’s greatest race.
According to the Times, Baffert is seeking a preliminary injunction that would keep Churchill Downs from denying his horses entry into races there or at Turfway Park in Florence, Kentucky, which it also owns, and from “prohibiting him from earning points to qualify for (this year’s) Kentucky Derby.” Also, the draft complaint demands that the company recognize qualifying points that his horses have already earned in prep races and seeks millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages.
As you might expect, word of the looming complaint did not sit well with CDI. The company’s CEO, Bill Carstanjen, described it as “completely meritless” and vowed to vigorously defend it in court.
Carstanjen emphasized that Baffert was a repeat offender. His filly Gamine also tested positive for the substance after she finished third in the 2020 Kentucky Oaks. Carstanjen added that Baffert’s horses have failed 30 drug tests over four decades, including five in a recent 13-month period.
The prelitigation maneuvering is just one legal front for Baffert, 69. He’s also fighting a similar ban imposed by the New York Racing Association, defending himself against a class-action lawsuit filed by bettors who backed Derby runner-up Mandaloun in the race, and pursuing a lawsuit against the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission aiming to prevent it from disqualifying Medina Spirit, who died suddenly in December after a workout at Santa Anita Park.
Because of Baffert’s lawsuit, Kentucky’s racing stewards have yet to hold a hearing on the positive drug test, much less render a decision.
Churchill Downs’ decision to defend itself should Baffert file the lawsuit is not without risk. Baffert often gets the best young male horses on the West Coast, and so far most of his owners have stood behind him. If they don’t break ranks and send their horses to other trainers, this year’s Run for the Roses could be a much paler shade of red.
Ellis Starr’s Fifth Season Stakes analysis
Thomas Shelby draws the rail for this mile trip at Oaklawn Park, and that means jockey David Cohen will have the ability to put him on the lead, which has resulted in three wins in his last four starts, or settle him off the pace, which has resulted in another three wins before that. Thomas Shelby joined the barn of trainer Robertino Diodoro in November 2020 and after finishing fourth, third and seventh in his initial three starts for the barn, has turned into an “alpha” horse, winning seven of 10, finishing second in two others and third another time. In October, Thomas Shelby ran the best race of his career winning a classified allowance race with a career-best 112 Equibase Speed Figure. He won again in November then after two months off led until deep stretch before coming up three-quarters of a length short in the Tinsel Stakes. That race was at Oaklawn and was run at a mile and one-eighth, with Thomas Shelby leading at the point this mile race ends so repeating that effort could be good enough to win the Fifth Season Stakes.
Silver Prospector has four career wins, one of which came at Oaklawn. That was when victorious in the 2020 Southwest Stakes with a then career-best 107 figure. After a poor sixth place effort in the Rebel Stakes followed by a poor seventh place finish in the Arkansas Derby, Silver Prospector was given nearly six months off. Returning in the fall off a lengthy layoff, Silver Prospector raced in top form to win and earned a very strong 106 figure considering the time off. Although winless in five races since, Silver Prospector ran just as well as he had in the comeback when second in the Razorback Stakes last February at Oaklawn, earning a 108 figure. Now rested since last May the same way he was in the spring 2020 until his strong win in the fall of that year, Silver Prospector has put in a pair of very strong workouts which were the best of 52 and the fourth best of 44 on the day. These signal he could be as fit and ready to run just like he did off a similar layoff, and if he does that he could certainly compete for top honors in this race.
Concert Tour is another returning off a layoff since last May, and he too is working in the morning like he will not need a race before showing his best. Concert Tour won the first three races of his career last year, including the San Vicente Stakes and the Rebel, in which he earned a career-best 104 figure drawing off easily to win by four and one-quarter lengths in geared down fashion. After a third place finish in the Arkansas Derby¸ Concert Tour skipped the Kentucky Derby then showed up in the Preakness, running the worst race of his career when ninth of 10 and beaten more than 30 lengths. Returning to training last October, Concert Tour has been placed in the care of trainer Brad Cox, who has an exceptional record of nine wins from 25 starts with horses coming back from six months off or more in dirt routes. As such, Concert Tour appears to fit with the best of the contenders in this year’s Fifth Season.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Atoka (100); Long Range Toddy (102); Mucho (108 in sprint races); Necker Island (108 in sprint races); Rated R Superstar (105); and Snapper Sinclair (115 on turf).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.