Even In Exile, Bob Baffert Is The King Of The Sport Of Kings

Even In Exile, Bob Baffert Is The King Of The Sport Of Kings

ARCADIA, California. – Bob Bafferts was kind to outcasts. Most mornings, the Kentucky Derby-barred jockey can be found under the red-colored court of the San Gabriel Mountains at Clockers 'Clockers' Corner, an open-air bistro in Santa Anita Park.

With his hands in his pockets, he chatted basketball with a group of jockey officers and horse owners on his final morning before heading to position eight to watch his horses in action. Once there, Baffert raised his binoculars to examine the light brigade like a jeweler appraising precious stones.

Baffert Barn horses are the most expensive horses in the world in Southern California. Working owner Amr Zedan paid $3.55 million at auction for a colt named Hejazi, and another $2.3 million for Arabian Knight.

If the name sounds familiar, it should. unless Zedan, the Saudi venture capitalist who owns Medina Spirit, wins the 2021 Kentucky Derby. The stallion tested positive for a banned drug on the day of the race and his win was disqualified. Kentucky regulators later suspended Baffert for 90 days, and Derby broadcaster Churchill Downs banned him from entering horses in the race in 2022 and 2023. Regulators in Maryland and New York upheld the 2022 ban, so Baffert will lose the other two legs of the triple. , Belmont and Praknes.

This attitude has further damaged the sport, with doping scandals, the frequent and mysterious deaths of its horses (Medina Spirit died suddenly in training in 2021) and concerns about declining interest in racing.

After initially accusing Stop the Culture of segregation, Baffert vigorously protested his innocence and sought to overturn his convictions in courts and tribunals from Kentucky to New York.

One place that was clearly not written off was Southern California. In 2022, the Baffert stable won some of the 75 races at Santa Anita, Del Mar and Los Alamitos and earned more than $9.7 million, finishing 12th in the national training standings according to Equibase after Baffert missed the three months. it serves to stop.

However, within an hour, his attorney, Clark Brewster, said he would agree to the interview if Baffert focused only on a 15-slide Power Point presentation containing legal arguments, Baffert didn't break any rules and didn't have to. to lose . He won the 2021 Derby.

In his affidavit, Baffert said he would "actually be fired" if Churchill Downs were barred from the Derby and all other races he owns. Despite the mistakes, this has not happened because horse owners continue to trust his investments, and trust in him always pays off.

Baffert works with horse owners to buy the best and most athletic horses at auction and then have them win the American classics: the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, the Breeders' Cup race. the value of the horse as a promising horse.

Baffert has sired 16 Classic winners, 18 Breeders' Cup champions and two Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018). The Irish Coolmore breeding group bought American Pharoah for $30 million and Justify for $60 million.

Baffert talked about his love for the derby and treated it with the same intensity that Steve Kerr and Bill Belichick brought to their NBA and NFL championships. Of the six official derby wins, Ben Jones, who won between 1938 and 1952, is most associated with the manager.

During a February hearing to overturn the Churchill Downs ban, Baffert was asked how many times he had won America's most famous race.

"Seven," he replied, still hoping for the victory of Medina's Spirit. "I set a record, I'm very proud of it."

Baffert was a Quarter Horse trainer in the late 1980s when longtime horse owner Mike Pegram asked him to switch to Thoroughbreds. In 1998, the pair won the Derby, Praknes, and then lost the Triple Crown at the Belmont to a horse called Real Quiet. Both found the scene they wanted to play.

Pegram said the stress of Medina Spirit's failed drug test and its aftermath may not have been reflected in the performance of Baffert's horses or the prices their owners paid at auction, but it affected Baffert and his reputation.

"Numbers are numbers and Bob is the best," Pegram said. “But when someone attacks you, it hurts. Everyone handles it differently. Bob is a big guy and moving on."

Maybe so, but Baffert is still fighting to overturn his Medina Spirit suspension, his Kentucky and New York suspensions and his ban from running at Churchill Downs. He said the substance found in Medina Spirit's blood, betamethasone, a corticosteroid injected into joints to reduce pain and inflammation, came from the cream, not the injection.

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Lawyers for state regulators and Churchill Downs have argued that any amount of drugs should be banned on race day, citing nine positive drug tests on Baffert's horses between 2016 and 2020, arguing that his involvement is detrimental to horse racing.

"You damaged my reputation," Baffert testified in federal court in February. “My horses should earn more. "I didn't run for 90 days and had to let people go."

Immediately after the ban, Baffert gave most of the Derby contenders to other managers, most notably former assistant Tim Yaktin, to earn qualifying points in the final pre-Derby races. Yaktin fielded Taiba and Messier for Baffert last year and saw them finish 12th and 15th.

Pegram put his horses in Baffert's stable, betting on the Derby. One of them, Cave Rock, finished second in the 2022 Breeders' Cup Juvenile to Forte, the champion 2-year-old and current favorite to win the Derby. Cave Rock is among the horses Baffert wants to bring to Baltimore for the Preakness.

"Bob has character, and I hope I have character," Pegram said.

California has been good to Baffert, but it's less clear that it's been good to horse racing in the state. The sport was rocked after 30 horses died in six months at Santa Anita in 2019 after California lawmakers and animal rights activists scrutinized the national news.

In response, state and racing officials tightened regulations on equine herbs, equine medication, training for trainers and jockeys, road safety, and rehabilitation of injured horses. Twelve horses died at Santa Anita last year, and the number of blood-related deaths in California dropped 54 percent in 2019, from 144 to 66.

However, Baffert's Derby disqualification and Medina Speer's death have cast the horse in an unfavorable light at a time when animal rights groups have a strong voice.

Baffert's return to the Triple Crown coincides with the introduction of tougher drug rules. They are governed by the recently formed Equestrian Integrity and Safety Council, which appears to have overcome legal challenges from racing industry groups. Drug testing is now centralized, fast and efficient.

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That wasn't the case when Medina Spirit failed a post-race drug test. If the new rules were in place, Medina could have been out of the starting gate for the Spirit Derby because under the basic rules, Baffert would have served at least 180 days and possibly more for previous violations.

In the horse racing community, Baffert's dominance in California is evident among other trainers and owners. 14 of the 16 horses entered for the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis was trained for the Stakes going into the Derby by Baffert. Its owners paid a total of 9.1 million dollars.

Only four horses were entered on race day, and Baffert trained four. The betting was apoplectic and the regulators feared that one manager could control the outcome of the contest. Scott Chaney, executive director of the California Horse Racing Commission, said officials warned jockeys not to cooperate.

"We don't even want any sign of a deal because it's a regulatory issue," Cheney said in an interview.

The competitive imbalance affected the Santa Anita backflow and Del Mar, California's main runway outside San Diego. Some owners decided that if they couldn't beat Baffert, they might as well join him and give him more horses for his already loaded stable. The other coaches grumbled, but refused to go to the plate so as not to appear jealous.

"I don't know about Bob, he's got a strong brand, a good team, and he goes all out," said Bill Nader, president and CEO of Thoroughbred Owners of California. “I think the frustration of the coaches is why not me? This is a valid question. There is no shortage of alternatives. We have Hall of Famers, great teams and young talent, all great coaches and great competition winners."

There is a common complaint among riders that emphasizes the otherworldly nature of horse racing. "No one knows anything."

Horses are expensive. Breeding means nothing if the horse has not run fast. Between injuries and poor performances, Baffert's multimillion-dollar team missed just one Derby qualifier, the Reincarnate, ridden by Yachten.

Derby is everyone's race. Just ask Eric Reid and Sonny Leon, the trainer and jockey of last year's 80-1 winner Rich Strike.

Want to make a good bet? Baffert was shooting a colt in the Baltimore Preakness, ending his Triple Crown chase and reclaiming his place on the horse racing scene.

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