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Bob Baffert, Churchill Downs appeared headed to courtroom

Updated January 13, 2022 - 8:05 pm

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.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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