By Jon Lees
USA: Bob Baffert is free to race at Saratoga and other tracks in New York state after a judge ruled his suspension was unconstitutional.
On the eve of the start of the prestigious summer meet, a judge in Brooklyn, New York, nullified the suspension, declaring that the legendary trainer had not received due process when the NYRA imposed a temporary ban in the wake of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit failing a post-race drug test.
Baffert challenged the decision in court and in a written judgement Judge Carol Bagley Amon found in his favour, ruling that the trainer should have been given a chance to refute the allegations against him.
She said: “Even if one accepted that NYRA’s interest in ‘preserving the integrity of racing’ was paramount and that there was a need to act quickly because the Belmont Stakes was ‘coming like a freight train’, the failure to accord Baffert any acceptable form of post-suspension hearing is fatal to NYRA’s position that it complied with due process.”
The judge concluded that while NYRA’s interests in protecting the sport were important, they had not demonstrated that Baffert’s presence on their tracks posed a threat to integrity and safety.
“The hardships that Baffert would suffer absent an injunction weigh heavily on the other side of the scale,” she said. “The suspension is indefinite, and NYRA concedes at most that Baffert’s claims might ‘be decided within the year’.
“But the 2021 Saratoga summer meet is a one-time opportunity. And given that many of the races are limited to horses of a certain age, an inability to compete in those races now means those horses will never have the chance.
“Baffert will face substantial damage to his income, client base, and reputation if he cannot enter horses at NYRA races for the indefinite future. He has already lost one prominent client and stands to lose others, and has been deprived of the ability to compete at Belmont.
“I am sensitive to NYRA’s concerns about Baffert’s involvement in the events surrounding Medina Spirit’s Kentucky Derby performance, and the fear that history might repeat itself in New York. But for the reasons stated, the actual and substantial harm that Baffert will suffer absent an injunction outweighs the speculative harms that NYRA raises.”
NYRA president and CEO Dave O’Rourke said in the statement the action taken against Baffert in May was taken to protect the integrity of racing “at a time of crisis for the sport”.
“NYRA is reviewing the court’s decision today to determine our legal options and next steps. What is clear, however, is that Mr. Baffert’s actions and behaviour can either elevate or damage the sport. We expect Mr. Baffert to exert appropriate controls over his operation.
“Importantly, the court upheld NYRA’s authority to exclude individuals from its racetracks whose conduct is contrary to the best interests of thoroughbred racing. The court also rejected Baffert’s argument that NYRA had no legal authority to take the action that it did.”