Bob Baffert is the most highly recognized person in racing, and not just because of his signature snow-white hair. And, thanks to a stay of a recent 60-day suspension that was to have begun on Monday, the nation’s leading trainer will be able to maintain his high public profile, at least for the time being.
Baffert, who saddled Point Given to wins in this year’s Preakness and Belmont Stakes, was handed a ban from June 25 through Aug. 23 by California stewards Ingrid Fermin, Tom Ward and David Samuel, because one of his horses, Nautical Look, tested positive for a trace of the illegal drug morphine after winning an allowance race at Hollywood Park on May 3, 2000.
But last Friday, at the request of Baffert’s attorney, Neil Papiano, Los Angeles County Superior Court judge David Yaffe granted the stay "until such time as we are able to exhaust all proceedings and get a decision," according to Papiano. That could take months. Now, the matter appears headed for a legal morass.
Earlier, Papiano had filed an appeal with the California Horse Racing Board, but the CHRB denied the stay. In doing so, CHRB chairman Robert Tourtelot said that although he has granted stays for jockeys in cases involving riding infractions, he never granted one for a medication violation. He noted that his policy for medication violations is consistent with the last two CHRB chairmen. "We treat everyone the same, even a leading trainer," said Tourtelot.
Had the stay not been granted, Baffert would have been forced to sit idly by for 60 days and count his money, which, as the nation’s leading trainer this year in earnings won, amounted to more than $10 million.
Not proclaiming guilt or innocence, but this is a scenario that could unfold in any barn. Baffert, obviously, is wearing a legal muzzle and can’t or won’t speak about the issue.
But opinions over the controversy are rampant and not everyone is silent.
"It’s a bad deal for Bob," said fellow trainer Vladimir Cerin, who once was cited for a drug violation himself. He ultimately opted to pay a small fine to resolve it, rather than incur the prohibitive legal costs to fight.
"There’s no way that somebody would use morphine knowing that morphine was being tested for," said Cerin, 46, who holds a graduate degree from UCLA in kinesiology (the study of movement) and is one of the most cerebral horsemen on the circuit. "Everyone knows it’s something that could come up in a test, so no one would be caught using it for his advantage. I wish it hadn’t happened, to Bob or anybody else."
Baffert was 2,000 miles away from California, in Kentucky, when Nautical Look won the race in question. But he was held accountable under the trainer’s liability rule, which offers zero tolerance.
Perhaps common-sense leniency should be considered in cases such as this.
"Even if you are at the barn 24/7, sometimes you give horses a supplement you are 100 percent sure contains nothing wrong with it, and it turns out that one of its metabolites is the same as if you’ve used some kind of serious (illegal) drugs," Cerin pointed out. "It’s hard to say. To me, it’s much more likely Bob is an unfortunate victim of circumstances, that something happened to the horse beyond his control. Unfortunately, the rules require him to be punished, but I just wish it were different."
This is not to say nefarious acts do not take place under the shed. Several years ago, "milkshakes" were all the rage in Kentucky, where some horsemen were administering the illegal concoctions orally to their horses in order to enhance their performance on the track. "We shouldn’t be naive," said one horseman, speaking on the terms of anonymity. "Why did they use milkshakes? Because they win with them."
Training horses is not unlike other professions. Often, it is dog-eat-dog, and human nature is such that there are those who delight in seeing the top dog, in this case Baffert, fall from grace.
"Because he is so successful, most people want him to be punished," Cerin said. "I don’t, because it could happen to me tomorrow; because it could happen to any trainer tomorrow. And, unfortunately, in many cases, they don’t know how it happened."
THE HOMESTRETCH: Despite the fact that Tyler Baze did not ride for his biggest supporter, John Sadler, during a span of more than two weeks, the trainer said there was nothing amiss between the two, saying it was merely a coincidence. "He just wasn’t available," said Sadler, who saddled 14 horses from June 7 until June 23 using riders other than Baze, who had ridden six winners in 28 mounts for Sadler at Hollywood through June 6. Tyler finally got back in the saddle for his main man in Saturday’s second race aboard Sir Gritty, who finished sixth.
With Hollywood in the final weeks of its 66-day meet, the track has held up well, and, more importantly, has been very safe, with favorites winning nearly 35 percent of the time. "It’s been playing very fair," said trainer Paul Aguirre, who has eight wins from 36 starters, 20 percent. "I haven’t had many injuries at all, and whether I have a front-runner or a closer, I feel confident going into the race. It’s really a good track." . . . John O’Donoghue, assistant to Neil Drysdale, says Fusaichi Zenon, a Group winner in Japan, could make his U.S. debut in the July 4 American Handicap. Fusaichi Zenon is a son of 1989 Kentucky Derby winner Sunday Silence. Drysdale has returned to California after attending the races at Royal Ascot in his native England. . . Sunday’s 62nd running of the Hollywood Gold is expected to attract a small field, headed by Baffert trainee Captain Steve and the Bobby Frankel-trained duo of Skimming and Aptitude. A win by Captain Steve in the $750,000 race would move the 4-year-old into third on racing’s all-time money list.