Embattled Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, whose Kentucky Derby-winning Medina Spirit tested positive for the banned drug betamethasone, sued the New York Racing Association, Inc. in federal court on Monday.
The complaint, posted on Heitner Legal, demands an injunction against NYRA’s suspension of Baffert from its tracks (Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park, and Saratoga Race Course) and denying him stall space. NYRA indefinitely suspended Baffert on May 17, pending the results of an “ongoing investigation in Kentucky,” thus preventing Baffert from participating in the Belmont Stakes on June 5. Unless lifted, the suspension will also deny Baffert a chance to compete at the 152nd Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 28.
Baffert’s plea for an injunction comes as no surprise. As previously explained on Sportico, the 68-year-old Californian has plausible arguments under the law that NYRA acted too hastily and impermissibly in suspending him.
The trainer’s complaint, authored by Steptoe & Johnson attorney Charles Manuel, charges that NYRA violated Baffert’s rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as New York law. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees that the government, or entities pervasively entwined with the government, can’t take away a citizen’s property interests—including a license to engage in a profession—without satisfying procedural safeguards. Those safeguards often include warnings, a chance to review evidence and an opportunity to be heard.
Here, Baffert charges that NYRA suspended him (1) without the New York Gaming Commission issuing formal allegations, (2) without any notice, hearing or other opportunity to be heard, and (3) in the midst of a “media frenzy.” He also charges NYRA unlawfully deprived him of a trainer’s license that had been issued by the Gaming Commission, not NYRA. As Baffert sees it, NYRA functions as “an effective monopoly” over major horse racing events in the state and impermissibly tries to stand in the shoes of the Gaming Commission.
Baffert also depicts NYRA’s banishment as predicated on incomplete and undeveloped facts. He stresses that while he has been suspended by Churchill Downs for several years, he “has not been suspended” by KHRC and “Medina Spirit has not been disqualified as the winner of the Kentucky Derby.” Baffert also insists he is “in good standing” with the Gaming Commission and “faces no allegations” concerning any misconduct in New York. Baffert further criticizes NYRA’s suspension as resting “entirely upon an accusation in a separate jurisdiction, which has not yet made any conclusive determination.”
One legal hurdle for Baffert is that NYRA is a private company, not a government agency. Private sports associations generally do not need to meet due process requirements. Courts normally review their conduct in a deferential light, and usually uphold their decision-making so long as it follows both internal or collectively bargained rules and is not arbitrary. With horse racing, concerns for health, safety and, especially in light of betting, fair play are all legitimate reasons to suspend a trainer of a horse that tests positive for a prohibited substance.
Further, while NYRA operates three major tracks in New York, it does not oversee all of the state’s tracks. Baffert, in other words, is not “banned from New York” as much as he is banned from certain, albeit the most significant, tracks in New York.
Mindful of these hurdles, Baffert’s attorneys try their best to portray NYRA as illegitimately functioning as an arm of the Gaming Commission—a government agency that must provide due process.
“NYRA,” the complaint stresses, “is governed entirely by the Gaming Commission and its duly-enacted regulations.” Baffert further argues that only the Gaming Commission is empowered to suspend or revoke a horse racing license under New York law. The complaint details various scenarios where the Commission—not NYRA—could reach that determination, including if the license holder has been convicted of a crime or is guilty of fraud connecting to racing. Such determinations ordinarily necessitate an opportunity to be heard. NYRA is also a state actor for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment, Baffert insists, because its racing facilities are “on property owned by the state itself,” a majority of NYRA’s board of directors are appointed by government officials, and it “derives substantial revenue” from the state’s Video Lottery Terminal (gaming) program.
Baffert’s attorneys could draw from favorable case law in New York. In Samuell v. NYRA, the Court of Appeals of New York held that a jockey who was excluded from tracks after an electric shock device was seen falling from the mount was owed certain elements of due process. The court stressed that while NYRA enjoys an extensive right to exclude persons from its premises when there is reasonable cause for such exclusion, “the seriousness of the deprivation” in the form of the jockey’s “livelihood” warranted a hearing or notice. Baffert’s argument treads along similar lines: He never received a chance to defend himself.
NYRA will have an opportunity to answer the complaint. Judge Carol Bagley Amon—who in 2009 sentenced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy to 15 months in prison for crimes related to betting on NBA games—will preside over the litigation, including the scheduling of any hearings for a restraining order.