Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block slammed & damned Baffert in 2018 for allegedly drugging Triple Crown winner Justify, praised him in 2020 for support of the Horseracing Integrity Act, & has slammed & damned him again since then.
BALTIMORE, Maryland––Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s horse National Treasure won the Preakness Stakes on May 20, 2023 at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
National Treasure led the Preakness from start to finish, standing off a late challenge from Blazing Sevens, leaving Kentucky Derby winner Mage in their dust.
Yet Baffert, not his horse, dominated the post-race discussion.
Two winners, one death
First another of Baffert’s horses, Arabian Lion, won a preliminary race on the Preakness card. Then a third Baffert horse, Havnameltdown, running in the Chick Lang Stakes later on the day-long card, “was rounding the far turn when he appeared to take a bad step, throwing jockey Luis Saez to the ground,” recounted Los Angeles Times racing correspondent John Cherwa.
“He suffered a broken left front fetlock injury that was non-operable, according to Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer for 1/ST Racing, which runs Pimlico,” explained Cherwa.
“Havnameltdown kept running with his lower leg clearly damaged. An outrider corralled him midway in the stretch. Benson and other veterinarians quickly made the decision to euthanize the horse on the track. A screen was placed around the horse to keep the public from seeing the final moments,” Cherwa continued.
“Saez, who was sitting up at one point, was put on a stretcher and taken away by ambulance. He was conscious, stable and complaining of leg pain,” Cherwa added.
“A messy figure atop a messy sport”
“Of course a Bob Baffert-trained horse won the Preakness Stakes,” observed Childs Walker of the Baltimore Sun. “The 70-year-old trainer embodies everything thrilling and unsettling about the sport he continues to dominate,” Walker wrote. “No one does a better job preparing horses to meet their potential on the most watched stages in racing. No one inspires greater distaste from those who see racing as corrupted by drugs and death.
“How do we reconcile these opposing visions of Baffert in the wake of his record-setting eighth Preakness victory?” Walker asked. “The most honest answer is that we cannot and need not. He’s a messy figure atop a messy sport.”
“We lost a good horse”
Baffert said the right things, as he often does, in post-Preakness interviews.
“It was nice to win the race, but to me, it was a pretty sad day,” Baffert recited. “The loss of Havnameltdown,” Baffert told media, meant that “all I’ll remember from this race is that we lost a good horse.”
Understated Walker, “Baffert’s story — the Arizona ranch kid who made his way in the quarter-horse world and did not switch to training thoroughbreds full time until he was approaching middle age, the guy who then started winning Triple Crown races at an unprecedented rate, and proved to be just as gifted in front of a camera as he was in his barn — is remarkable.
Wayne Pacelle said…
On the other hand, Animal Wellness Action president Wayne Pacelle told Walker, “Bob Baffert being allowed to run at Pimlico this year reminds us again of how the long-standing system of promoting track safety for thoroughbreds and jockeys is broken.
“If Baffert was rightly excluded from a Triple Crown venue [Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby] in 2022 and 2023,” Pacelle argued, “then that prohibition should have applied to other race venues during that same time period and especially the Triple Crown tracks.”
Further, Pacelle contended, “If a trainer has a horse who dies in a race in the run-up to a Triple Crown contest, he or she should not be able to run a horse in that premier event. There must be consequences for trainers whose young, fit horses die in competition. Bob Baffert should not have been allowed to have a horse compete in the Preakness.”
No single regulatory body
But Pacelle’s argument runs afoul of the reality that horse racing, unlike most other professional sports, is not governed by a single regulatory body.
The horse racing “Triple Crown” series originated as a media invention. The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes are in truth united only by tradition and, in recent years, by a media contract managed by a company called Triple Crown Productions Inc.
Following the money leads three different ways
The Belmont Stakes, first run in 1867, is held at Belmont Park, in Elmont, New York, owned by the New York Racing Association.
The Preakness, first run in 1873, is held at the Pimlico Race Course, in Baltimore, Maryland, owned by the Stronach Group.
The Kentucky Derby, first run in 1875, is held at Churchill Downs, in Louisville, Kentucky, owned by Churchill Downs, Inc.
Each leg and venue of the Triple Crown series is under a different state regulatory body, whose primary responsibility in each case is collecting tax revenue from parimutuel betting.
Horseracing Integrity & Safety Act
The term “Triple Crown” itself, though in use as early as 1923, had no official status until 1950, when an award was created for Triple Crown winners and presented retroactively to the eight horses who had previously won all three races. Only five other horses have won the Triple Crown since 1950, including 2015 winner American Pharoah and 2018 winner Justify, both trained by Bob Baffert.
The federal Horseracing Integrity & Safety Act, signed into law in 2020, technically created a federal Horseracing Integrity & Safety Authority.
Implementing the Horseracing Integrity & Safety Authority, however, has been delayed by ongoing horse industry opposition to the existence and regulatory scope of the Horseracing Integrity & Safety Authority.
If horses wore rubber boots
“The Horseracing Integrity & Safety Authority should have been in place,” Pacelle emailed to ANIMALS 24-7. “The Authority could readily and easily adopt rules that say if horses are dying in competition, then that trainer cannot race for xx period.”
Well yes, and if horses wore rubber boots, they would not sometimes slip in their own dung, but reality is that the Horseracing Integrity & Safety Authority appears to still be years of litigation and perhaps further legislation away from actually having whatever authority it is supposed to exercise.
“Baffert has left a huge trail of horses dead on the track,” Pacelle continued.
“Infamous serial doper”
Marty Irby, back working on horse issues for Animal Wellness Foundation after a two-month stint with the libertarian advocacy group Freedom Works, went farther, recently calling Baffert “The most infamous serial doper in American horse racing.”
Not to be forgotten, though, is that both Pacelle and Irby previously represented the Humane Society of the United States [HSUS], and HSUS has long veered back and forth between damning Baffert for his many alleged offenses and praising him for what at least appeared to be progressive positions and remarks.
“Baffert got in trouble in 2001 after one of his horses tested positive for morphine,” recalled Justin Pritchard of Associated Press, after Baffert was inducted into the Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2009. “He blamed contaminated feed. Baffert said the case was dismissed.”
Said Baffert, “If a trainer has a big barn, things are going to mess up,” he said. “It’s mainly mistakes.”
Indeed, Baffert runs more horses in more races than almost any other trainer.
Despite that, Baffert seems to have avoided further controversy until April 2010, when a three-year-old horse named Tiz Chrome was euthanized after suffering a fatal fracture of the left front sesamoid during a workout in preparation for the Derby Trial.
Tiz Chrome had won two of his first three races and was expected to become a Kentucky Derby contender.
Baffert then lost seven horses to injury between July 2011 and March 2013.
Meanwhile, Baffert in May 2012 contributed to his reputation for drugging by leading Kentucky Derby trainers in opposition to a proposed ban on raceday use of Lasiz, a multi-purpose drug used in horses chiefly to prevent bleeding lungs.
Led trainers in doping penalties, but nowhere close in total fines
Justin Pritchard of Associated Press found in June 2012 that Baffert had more alleged drugging violations on record since 1997 than any other active Belmont trainer, with 20, to 17 and 15, respectively, for runners-up Doug “Drug” O’Neill and D. Wayne Lukas.
But “The amounts that state boards fined Baffert and Lukas were much lower than O’Neill’s total, generally reflecting the more routine nature of most of the violations,” Pritchard added. “Lukas was assessed $500, Baffert $5,800, and O’Neill $32,550.”
Baffert’s most controversial episode may have been his 2018 Triple Crown win with Justify.
Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block and Sara Amundson, president of the subsidiary Humane Society Legislative Fund, in a jointly written blog posting, said it provided “one of the most compelling arguments yet for reform in the horse racing industry and in particular for ending the massive leeway the industry now enjoys in policing itself in regard to the doping of animals.”
Justify, New York Times horse racing reporter Joe Drape revealed, and Block and Amundson summarized, “had already tested positive for a banned drug, scopolamine. The drug can act as a bronchodilator, clearing the horse’s airway and augmenting his heart rate, thereby enhancing his performance.”
According to Block and Amundson, “What unfolded next is a study in how those in the highest power echelons of the horse racing industry bent and twisted the rules to ensure that the star equine athlete stayed in the running.
“There were high stakes involved”
“Instead of the failed drug test causing a speedy disqualification, the California Horse Racing Board took more than a month to confirm the test results.”
“Then,” wrote Drape, “instead of filing a public complaint as it usually does, the board made a series of decisions behind closed doors as it moved to drop the case and lighten the penalty for any horse found to have the banned substance.”
“The board also decided not to continue with its case against Bob Baffert,” Block and Amundson objected.
“There were high stakes involved. After the Kentucky Derby, Justfy’s owners sold his breeding rights for $60 million,” Block and Amundson mentioned.
Baffert almost managed to stay out of the furor accompanying the deaths of at least 35 horses during racing or training at the Santa Anita track in southern California between December 2018 and October 2019, but prominently defended other trainers who lost horses.
Baffert did, however, lose an unraced three-year-old gelding named Carson Valley on July 18, 2019, at the Del Mar Racetrack, also in southern California, in a collision with Charge a Bunch.
Charge a Bunch, an unraced 2-year-old colt trained by Carla Gaines, threw rider Giovanni Franco and ran the wrong way down the track. Both horses were killed by the impact.
Twelve days later Bowl of Soul, a Baffert-trained 3-year-old filly, was euthanized at Del Mar due to an injury to her right hind fetlock.
Baffert was on the opposite end of a drugging scandal in March 2020, when trainer Jason Servis was among 27 individuals, including trainers and vets, who were indicted in New York state for allegedly doping horses.
Among the horses were Maximum Security, first to finish the 2019 Kentucky Derby, only to be disqualified for purportedly blocking two other horses in the final turn, and earlier in 2020 the winner of the biggest prize in horse racing, the $10 million Saudi Cup.
After Servis was indicted for allegedly doping “virtually all the racehorses under his control,” Maximum Security owner Gary West transferred Maximum Security to Baffert’s training stable.
Praised by Block, then flunked drug tests
Block and Amundson praised Baffert on March 20, 2020, after Baffert endorsed the Horseracing Integrity Act in the Washington Post.
But Baffert went on to flunk four drug tests within the next year, including two at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas and one each at Del Mar and Churchill Downs.
The failures cost Baffert two victories in Arkansas, but the Arkansas Racing Commission reinstated both wins, overturned a 15-day suspension meted out to Baffert, and fined him $10,000.
The other failed drug tests cost Baffert $2,500 in California and $1,500 in Kentucky.
That set up arguably Baffert’s most public fiasco. Baffert’s horse Medina Spirit appeared to have won the 2021 Kentucky Derby, but was disqualified after post-race testing discovered that Medina Spirit had been given more than twice the allowable dose of Betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory corticosteroid.
No Kentucky Derby winner had been disqualified for drugging since Dancer’s Image in 1968.
This, however, was at least Baffert’s 30th drug testing failure.
The New York Racing Association temporarily suspended Baffert, keeping him and Medina Spirit out of the 2021 Belmont. Churchill Downs then suspended Baffert for two years.
Said Churchill Downs chief executive Bill Carstanjen, “Baffert’s record of testing failures threatens public confidence in thoroughbred racing and the reputation of the Kentucky Derby.”
The evidence died
Compounding the situation, Medina Spirit collapsed and died after a December 6, 2021 workout at Santa Anita.
In February 2022 Medina Spirit was posthumously stripped of his 2021 Kentucky Derby win.
Barred from competing at Churchill Downs for 90 days, long enough to keep him out of the 2022 Kentucky Derby, a suspension later extended to keep him out of the 2023 Kentucky Derby as well, Baffert was also fined $7,500 and forfeited the prize money won by Medina Spirit.
The 2023 Preakness marked Baffert’s return to racing on Triple Crown series tracks.
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