Despite challenging odds, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert on Wednesday persuaded a federal judge to throw out a suspension blocking him from working with horses in New York. Citing a recent age eligibility case brought by teenage soccer phenom Olivia Moultrie, the potential harm to Baffert’s career if denied a chance to compete, and the rushed decision to punish the 68-year-old, two-time Triple Crown winner, U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon enjoined the New York Racing Association from enforcing its suspension.
NYRA had indefinitely suspended Baffert on May 17, blocking him from participating in the Belmont Stakes. The injunction paves the way for Baffert to compete at the 152nd Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 28.
Baffert argued that NYRA, a not-for-profit New York corporation (and thus not a government agency), violated his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees that the government, and entities so pervasively entwined with the government that they act “with state action,” can’t strip a license to engage in a profession without adhering to procedural safeguards. Those safeguards normally include advance notice, hearings and opportunities to rebut allegations. Rushed or arbitrary behavior by the government against its citizens can run afoul of due process.
Preliminary injunctions are difficult to obtain. Judges only grant them when petitioners meet several hurdles, which Baffert did.
First, Baffert showed that while NYRA isn’t a government agency, it nonetheless acted with a sufficient nexus to New York’s government in suspending him. NYRA, Judge Amon wrote, “carries out a statutorily prescribed role” in administering races and, by state statute, “must operate in a manner that is ‘fully accountable to the people of the state of New York.’” She also pointed out that one-third of NYRA’s directors are appointed by state officials—a demographic fact that shows close ties between NYRA and the government—and that a New York agency, the Franchise Oversight Board, “controls” NYRA.
Second, Baffert identified a number of ways NYRA seemed to treat him unfairly. NYRA’s suspension letter, Judge Amon stressed, “did not identify any state statute, regulation, or other legal authority under which it was suspending Baffert.” In other words, it doesn’t appear Baffert has broken any rules in New York. Instead, the letter vaguely cited “the best interests of thoroughbred racing” as justification. The letter also neglected to indicate when the suspension would end. Baffert was only informed the suspension’s length was pegged to an “ongoing investigation” in Kentucky, a state not governed by New York laws and procedures, that pertains to Kentucky Derby-winning Medina Spirit testing positive for the banned drug betamethasone. Baffert was also “not notified in advance of his suspension or given any kind of pre-suspension hearing” and as of July 12, “had not lifted the suspension or held a post-suspension hearing.”
Third, Baffert documented several ways in which he would suffer “irreparable harm,” a required condition for a preliminary injunction to be granted. The big loss for Baffert is from horse owners transferring their horses to other trainers for New York races. One prominent owner, WinStar Farm, moved horses out of Baffert’s barn while two others transferred their horses away from his care. Five other owners, court records show, plan to take similar steps.
Although a finding of irreparable harm is normally denied if monetary damages could “cure” the harm, Judge Amon underscored that Baffert could likely not be made whole by money. She cited age eligibility cases brought by Maurice Clarett against the NFL and Moultrie against the NWSL for the proposition that “a pecuniary award is not an adequate substitute for the intangible values for which the world’s greatest athletes compete,” particularly given the short length of athletes’ careers. While Baffert, 68, has enjoyed a long career, at his age it’s unclear how much longer he’ll train.
NYRA can appeal Judge Amon’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. It can also continue the litigation before Judge Amon, who in 2009 sentenced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy to 15 months in prison for crimes related to gambling. However, in that latter scenario, a final determination on Baffert’s case could take many months, if not years. During that time, NYRA’s suspension would be lifted by the injunction, leaving Baffert free to compete in New York races.