Bob Baffert, the famed but controversial horse trainer whom Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI) suspended last May after Medina Spirit tested positive for a prohibited substance, is taking CDI, as well as its chairman and CEO, to court.
Baffert v. Churchill Downs could rock the horse racing industry.
Carroll M. “Trip” Redford III and Baffert’s other attorneys filed a 56-page complaint on Monday in the U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. Baffert argues that CDI, CEO William Carstanjen and chairman Alex Rankin have deprived him of due process; unlawfully excluded him from competition; tortiously interfered with his contractual and business relations; and, while possessing “a quasi-monopoly over racing days in several states,” conspired against him in violation of federal antitrust law.
Baffert, 69, seeks a declaration that the suspension is illegal and an accompanying injunction to lift it. He also demands monetary damages and attorneys’ fees. Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings has been assigned the case.
CDI has issued a statement calling Baffert’s claims “meritless and consistent with his pattern of failed drug tests, denials, excuses and attempts to blame others and identify loopholes in order to avoid taking responsibility for his actions.”
CDI suspended Baffert for two years in the wake of Medina Spirit testing positive for betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory drug CDI prohibits on race days, following the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Medina Spirit won the race but its status as the winner was in limbo when the horse died in December. Then last month, the Kentucky stewards disqualified the late horse, and Mandaloun was declared the winner. The declaration denied Spirit’s owner, Amr Zedan (Zedan Racing Stables), of the $1.8 million winner’s purse.
Baffert’s complaint portrays CDI as willfully engaging in illegal acts. He argues that “without any notice” and “prior to any confirmatory testing,” CDI immediately suspended Baffert and, soon thereafter, trainers employed by Bob Baffert Racing Stables Inc. He criticizes CDI for issuing a public statement that essentially described Baffert as guilty.
Baffert contends this swift decision and condemnation were hasty, prejudicial and illegal. As Baffert sees it, he was denied a chance to credibly assert a defense before being labeled a cheater.
Making matters worse, Baffert argues, the 24-month suspension is wildly excessive for the alleged offense. In fact, he says it is “24 times more severe than the maximum penalty contemplated under Kentucky regulations for any type of betamethasone violation, and eight times more severe than the stewards’ recommended (and unlawful) penalty.” A penalty unaligned with precedent can help Baffert argue he was denied notice: Had he known he’d face a two-year suspension, he presumably would have taken more precautions.
Baffert also charges that CDI acted outside its lane and lacked the legal authority “to place conditions” on his trainer’s occupational license, since that authority is vested in the Kentucky Racing Commission.
CDI’s maneuvers, Baffert charges, have “the singular aim of destroying” his career. He notes that last September, CDI adopted a disciplinary rule that affects just one trainer, him. The rule denies horses trained by suspended persons from earning points, including in races held outside of CDI properties, to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. The complaint maintains Baffert “has been singled out for arbitrary, capricious, and disparate treatment.”
In that same vein, CDI’s moves have “rendered valueless Baffert’s training services at a national level” and “unnecessarily tarnished Baffert’s reputation as an elite thoroughbred horse trainer and subjected him to unwarranted public ridicule and condemnation.”
One major hurdle acknowledged, and repeatedly rebutted, in Baffert’s complaint is that CDI is a private business and not the government. Courts review the application of membership rules by private businesses—particularly sports leagues and sports associations—with a high degree of deference. Usually, the application must be arbitrary or capricious to be deemed unlawful.
In other words, even if Baffert could persuasively show that CDI was atypically harsh or unfair, so long as CDI can muster a logical explanation, a court would be inclined to rule it acted lawfully. CDI, for example, might say it acted quickly because there was no time. The race’s outcome, overshadowed by a cheating allegation, was in question. CDI can maintain its customers and the betting community were owed clarity and transparency.
Mindful of this dynamic, Baffert’s attorneys contend that CDI is “so overborne by the pervasive entwinement” of the state racing commission that Baffert’s suspension constitutes “state action,” meaning it must comply with constitutional safeguards, including due process. To that end, the commission is depicted as “responsible” for CDI’s suspension in that CDI lacks “independent rules prohibiting betamethasone in horses” and “relied entirely” on the commission to investigate. This type of private-public entanglement argument worked for Baffert in New York, where last year a federal enjoined the New York Racing Association (a private association) from enforcing its suspension on Baffert.
In the coming weeks, CDI’s attorneys will answer the complaint and deny Baffert’s claims. Expect CDI to describe its decision-making as reasonable and consistent with organizational rules and industry norms. It will also emphasize that it is a private sports association and therefore owed deference.