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CHURCHILL DOWNS BANS BAFFERT: THE END OF HORSE RACING?
When the Hall of Fame trainer is censured by the venerable track after another failed drug test — this involving the Kentucky Derby winner — it might be time for a corrupt sport to finally fade away
The man with the snow-white hair and tinted glasses says he’s innocent. Of course, so did O.J. Simpson, Richard Nixon and Herodotus, but they actually might have had more credibility than Bullcrappin’ Bob Baffert, who drugs up racehorses as routinely as the rest of us take showers.
There wasn’t even a slight tremor on the sports shock meter when Medina Spirit, Baffert’s seventh Kentucky Derby winner, failed a post-race test for a banned substance. It was the fifth time in 13 months that a Baffert-trained horse tested positive, pushing the number of dirties to at least 30 in a career that somehow has been celebrated despite the cruel acts happening in his barns. Officials at famed Churchill Downs moved quickly Sunday to separate themselves from Bullcrappin’ Bob, banning him from entering horses at the track and preparing to invalidate the victory once the findings are confirmed by a split sample.
“``Failure to comply with the rules and medication protocols jeopardizes the safety of the horses and jockeys, the integrity of our sport and the reputation of the Kentucky Derby and all who participate,’’ said a statement from the track. ````”Churchill Downs will not tolerate it."
Yet Baffert, accustomed to self-defense tactics, says he did not inject 21 picograms of betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory steroid, into the system of Medina Spirit — twice the legal limit in Kentucky. He wants us to believe him despite the presence of the same drug in another Baffert entry, Gamine, after the filly’s third-place finish in the Kentucky Oaks last year. He wants us to believe him even though, just last month in Arkansas, two of his horses tested positive for lidocaine, a painkiller. Every time he’s accused, Bullcrappin’ Bob drags his attorney to a news briefing and vows to fight the allegations, citing human error, accidental exposure or some other bunk. And repeatedly, when the mainstream sports world isn’t looking, suspensions are reduced to small fines or brief bans that quickly are forgotten because, hey, he’s Bob Baffert and, hey, he’s the only recognizable figure left in a broken-down sport.
Sure enough, Baffert was accompanied by attorney Craig Robertson as he spoke to the media in his Churchill Downs stall. He resorted to the same dog-eared script he memorized long ago, nose growing by the minute as he vowed to battle the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission with blood, hair and DNA samples and whatever peripheral nonsense he can muster.
``”I got the biggest gut-punch in racing, for something I didn't do," he said. ``”I was totally shocked when I heard this news. I’m still trying to absorb it. I am the most scrutinized trainer. And I am OK with that. The last thing I want to do is something that would jeopardize the greatest sport.”
So why does it keep happening, Bob? When drugs are killing horses by the dozens in America, year after heart-wrenching year, why does racing’s most heralded trainer remain a participating conspirator in the corruption? A better question: Why isn’t Baffert being investigated by the feds, especially in a sport dependent on the revenues of gamblers both serious and casual? This is where he wants us to think he’s being sabotaged by another trainer or sinister party, which might be true in a case or two but not 30-plus times over decades. All people are crooks in this racket.
`````”A complete injustice,’’ Baffert said. “``I don’t feel embarrassed; I feel I was wronged. We're going to show them everything. This horse was never treated with that. He's a great horse; he doesn't deserve this. He ran a gallant race.
“``This shouldn’t have happened. There’s a problem somewhere. It didn’t come from us. I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I know everybody is not out to get me, but there's definitely something wrong. Why is it happening? You know, there's problems in racing, but it's not Bob Baffert."
Churchill Downs doesn’t believe him, nor should it. This is the equivalent of Augusta National banning Tiger Woods if he’d cheated, or Yankee Stadium ordering a deceitful Alex Rodriguez to go home — wait, it did. This is Barry Bonds multiplied. The question: To what extent will the track continue its legal fight against the sport’s rock star, who hobs-nobs with celebrities and carries media importance? If for some creepy reason the split sample clears Baffert, will the lords of the Twin Spires just let the Hall of Famer walk, as always?
And what about the sport as a whole, including a certain broadcast partner with May ratings at stake? You think NBC wants a dirty drug test to muddle its story line at the upcoming Preakness? Baffert, who never has lost in Baltimore with a Derby winner, will try to win for a record eighth time. And because the next detection phase could take two weeks to a month, NBC will cover the event as if Medina Spirit is pursuing a Triple Crown, even if Churchill Downs eventually nails Baffert and declares Mandaloun the winner. I’m guessing ethics aren’t prominent on NBC’s priorities list after Mike Tirico interviewed mutual admirers Baffert and Bill Belichick — Mr. Spygate — in a segment before the Derby. Kicking and screaming, the squeamish Tirico will have to cover it, unless the network tells him not to.
If Baffert is confirmed in Louisville as a doping fiend, a beautiful sport will be further swallowed by a black cloud that suggests the end is near. When a hallowed shrine is so disgusted with a legendary name that it won’t let him through the gates, maybe it’s time for horse racing to cease as we know it. Why would gamblers, even those who like showing up at the Derby in fancy hats, trust any of this? Isn’t it demeaning, beneath them?
``”I'm worried about our sport," Baffert said. “``Our sport, we've taken a lot of hits as a sport. These are pretty serious accusations here, but we're going to get to the bottom of it and find out. We know we didn't do it."
We’ve heard this denial trail before. Lance Armstrong went down it, too far, before his conscience and the feds attacked him.
So all that’s left for Bullcrappin’ Bob, then, is the Oprah interview.
Jay Mariotti, called ``’’the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of ``Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Spotify, etc.). He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.