NEW YORK – A New York judge on Monday was sympathetic to horse trainer Bob Baffert’s claims that his May suspension from the New York Racing Association – after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit failed a post-race drug test – was unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon at a hearing in Brooklyn repeatedly pressured a lawyer for the racing association to explain why the suspension was issued before Baffert was given a chance to defend himself.
Henry Greenberg, who argued on behalf of the racing association, said Baffert will be given a hearing after the association announces the length of his suspension by August 11th.
“Isn’t it a little too late?” asked the judge, noting that the duration will be announced months after he was suspended. “The problem I have, counselor, is that he was suspended and it’s up in the air.”
She said the racing association attacked his credibility when it issued the suspension, but never gave him the chance to speak on his own behalf about what happened.
“How is it in accordance with proper process?” asked the judge.
At another point, Amon said, “You just sent him a letter saying, ‘You’re out,’ without any process.”
Greenberg repeatedly said the NYRA, which operates the Belmont Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga Race Course, took the step to protect the integrity of the sport.
He said the association had to act quickly because the Belmont Stakes, the third diocese of the horse racing Triple Crown, were fast approaching in early June.
In addition, the attorney noted that the Kentucky Derby test was the fifth time in the past year that a horse trained by Baffert tested positive for medication.
“Rarely in the history of the sport has there been such a confluence of drug positives that involved such a prominent coach,” association lawyers wrote in court papers.
In Baffert’s trial last month, which sought to have the suspension lifted, the Hall of Famer claimed he was suspended without “any prior notice” and was not told the duration or terms of the suspension or any law or regulation in New York that he possibly would have violated.
After hearing arguments from both sides, Amon did not rule immediately.
Attorney W. Craig Robertson III argued on Baffert’s behalf, saying it was unfair of the racing association to suspend his client without completing an investigation into the circumstances surrounding what he called the “alleged test” on Medina Spirit.
Robertson said it was possible that traces of betamethasone were found in the horse’s system as a result of an ointment applied to the horse to treat skin rashes three weeks before the race. The unregulated ointment, he said, contained betamethasone.
Churchill Downs suspended Baffert for two years after a further drug test by Medina Spirit confirmed betamethasone in the horse’s system. Baffert will not be able to participate in any horses in the Kentucky Derby or other races on the great Louisville track through the spring of 2023.
Robertson argued that the suspension in New York would be the “death blow” to Baffert’s training business because New York’s Saratoga Race Course, which reopens Thursday, is a crucial stop for a young horse destined for greatness.
He said a top horse farm in Kentucky had already taken two premium horses from Baffert’s care, and another elite horse producer was considering finding another trainer if Baffert could not participate in horses in New York races.
Outside court, Baffert and his lawyers declined to comment after the hearing.