In an interview on Monday, famed racehorse trainer Bob Baffert complained to Fox News hosts Bill Hemmer and Dana Perino that his suspension by Churchill Downs, which said Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit’s post-race blood sample revealed a drug violation, reflect “cancel culture” in America. Baffert vowed to restore his name and prove that Medina Spirit, still slated to run in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, didn’t cheat.
As of this writing, Medina Spirit remains the winner of the 147th Kentucky Derby. In a statement issued yesterday, Churchill Downs Incorporated announced Medina Spirit’s post-race blood sample “indicated a violation of the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s equine medication protocols.” The sample reportedly showed an impermissible amount of betamethasone, a corticosteroid used to treat joint inflammation in horses. (Baffert forcefully denies that any amount of betamethasone was given to Medina Spirit.)
Churchill Downs says it will wait to see if a second sample confirms the first’s findings. If it does, runner-up Mandaloun will be declared the winner. The team representing Medina Spirit, owned by Amr Zedan (Zedan Racing Stables), would then forfeit the $1.86 million winner’s purse.
As this controversy involves several entities and multiple races, it’s worth clarifying roles and how they impact Baffert’s legal options.
First, Baffert has been suspended by Churchill Downs Incorporated, a publicly traded entertainment company that owns and operates the famed horse racing complex. The suspension, the company wrote in a statement, reflects “the seriousness of the alleged offense.” The suspension indefinitely bars Baffert from entering any horses at Churchill Downs Racetrack.
Baffert, 68, could raise two types of legal claims against Churchill Downs. The first would be to seek a court order, restraining Churchill Downs from enforcing its suspension. Baffert would probably face difficult odds. Courts usually defer to private businesses in how they administer internal rules, so long as they apply those rules in neither an arbitrary nor capricious manner. Baffert’s bemoaning of “cancel culture” might have traction on social media but probably not in the courts.
Defamation would provide a second type of claim. Baffert, who has trained seven Kentucky Derby winners, is clearly outraged. “I never thought,” Baffert told Fox News, “I’d have to be fighting for my reputation…. It’s been a horrible experience.”
The problem for a defamation claim is that Churchill Downs was very careful in its wording. The company made no comment or characterization about Baffert, except for citing “the seriousness of the alleged offense” related to his horse. A successful defamation claim needs to identify an untrue factual claim; it’s not clear where one exists here, especially since the company used “alleged.” Plus, as a public figure, Baffert would need to show “actual malice,” meaning that Churchill Downs either knowingly expressed a false and damaging statement or possessed reckless disregard for the statement’s truth or falsity. Given that Churchill Downs relied on a reported drug test, it likely acted within reason.
Baffert might also seek legal recourse against Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. However, the state government agency has not (yet) taken any action against Baffert, meaning he has no grounds to sue at this time.
KHRC is assessing the Medina Spirit blood tests and their circumstances. If KHRC suspends or takes other action against Baffert, he could—pursuant to state regulations—appeal, including to the Franklin Circuit Court. Should he sue, Baffert might insist he was denied due process or that fact-finding was conducted in a procedurally flawed and slipshod manner. But Baffert must exhaust all available appeals or challenges within the KHRC before he could successfully sue. If he pursues a remedy in court too soon, the judge will dismiss his complaint for lack of ripeness.
Baffert has successfully challenged suspensions before state commissions. Last month he persuaded the Arkansas Racing Commission to vacate a 15-day suspension and reduce a sanction to a monetary fine. The suspension had been issued for two of his horses testing positive for lidocaine, a painkiller. Baffert and his attorney, Craig Robertson, proved that the amount of prohibited substance in the horses was much lower than the threshold needed to provide a competitive advantage.
Baffert, who has trained two Triple Crown horses (American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018), could also go to court if Pimlico Race Course (PRC)—host of the Preakness and owned by real estate and entertainment company Stronach Group—bars Medina Spirit from racing on Saturday. Baffert could seek a temporary restraining order (TRO) to render it unlawful for PRC to deny Medina Spirit.
Obtaining a TRO is challenging. The petitioner must show not only a substantial likelihood of success on the merits, but also that he or she would suffer irreparable harm without a TRO and that it would not disserve the public interest.
In attempting to rebut Baffert, PRC could reason that Medina Spirit’s (potential) disqualification from the Kentucky Derby raises serious questions about the safety of other horses and jockeys, as well as threaten the integrity of the race, including for bettors. Further, PRC could stress that it has final control over races held on its property and that the public’s interest in reputable races would be compromised if the host can’t decide eligibility.
Yet Baffert could credibly maintain irreparable injury should Medina Spirit be excluded. The 146th running of the Preakness Stakes will only occur once, on Saturday. If Medina Spirit misses it, the horse and its team can’t later participate in a race already held. Nor could it win a Triple Crown this year. No amount of money, Baffert and his attorneys would contend, could remedy this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Medina Spirit. Baffert could also assert that PRC can’t disqualify a horse unless under it is authorized to do so in accordance with Maryland Racing Commission procedures.
One important factor: Courts are often reluctant to involve themselves in what are fundamentally disputes governed by athletic associations. This is true with horse racing. Last year, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Judge John Bush rejected a claim brought by the owners of Maximum Security, a horse controversially disqualified at the 145th Kentucky Derby. “To be sure,” Judge Bush opined, “a good judge is an umpire who calls balls and strikes. But we are not game officials in the literal sense, and we are ill-equipped to determine the outcome of sporting contests.”