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TIME TO TOAST BAFFERT’S DERBY EXILE WITH A MINT JULEP … OR TWO
Horse racing likely is too far down a scandalous road to recover, but Churchill Downs’ two-year ban of the disgraced trainer — almost 80 of his horses have died — is reason enough to resume the party
Long before Bob Baffert, long before the powdery mop of white hair that belies his dark and shadowy side, the Kentucky Derby was cooler than the Super Bowl — and much of pop culture itself. Gen Zers just stumbling back from Coachella won’t believe it, but it’s true. Saturday brings the 148th edition of America’s longest-running sports event, fashionista party and debaucherous day-drinking delirium.
This year, more than ever, it seems very important to celebrate with the customary mint julep, a funny hat and even a modest bet. We simply cannot let Baffert’s doping scandal kill off the Derby, still the most exciting two minutes in sports and a national holiday of fun when we allow it to be. He has been banished from Churchill Downs, the hallowed venue that made him famous, because he turned infamous and villainous. The Hall of Fame trainer with the outsize personality and 24/7 shades, arguably the biggest figure in horse racing history, now is best known not for winning six Derbys but for shooting up so many thoroughbreds we’ve lost track of the number.
He’s a ghost this weekend, exiled thousands of miles from Louisville, expelled from the Triple Crown races as he serves a 90-day suspension imposed by Kentucky officials along with a two-year ban at the track. His absence needn’t be the prominent story line. Rather, imagine a sport without scumbags and conspiracies. Think of how beautiful it all could be — as depicted through time by Hollywood — if trainers and veterinarians weren’t allowed to inject horses with juice, if racing wasn’t such a death trap. That is a pipedream, of course, but this time, at least the winner’s circle won’t be ruined by Baffert’s overwhelming presence.
His most recent winner, Medina Spirit in 2021, should be his last. He needs to fade away on a permanent vacation and let the sport heal, let the Twin Spires stand proud again. The thrill of watching a 12-1 shot win was sabotaged by Baffert’s worst moment yet: The colt failed a post-race drug test, which prompted a denial from Baffert, who quickly flipped his lie and admitted to treating the Derby winner with anti-inflammatory medication called betamethasone … as an ointment, not a performance enhancer, or so he claimed. Whatever credibility he still maintained was gone, and the horse was disqualified. At long last, in an inflection point, an industry tarnished by decades of positive drug tests finally chose to crack down.
And when Medina Spirit collapsed and died in December, as the latest in a staggering death call of almost 80 Baffert-affiliated horses since 2000, even characters who’ve accepted cheating as part of the sport’s wink-wink element were exhausted. Too much tragedy was making all of us, even casual followers, sick to our stomachs.
“Cancel culture,’’ Baffert said of the backlash.
His culture should be canceled, as should he.
With celebrities returning en masse for the first time in three years, dressed in their frilliest duds, don’t let the miscreant be bigger than the institution. Now that Congress is involved and Baffert is embalmed in California, maybe we can give horse racing a chance to shower and put on deodorant. It’s unfortunate that two of his 3-year-olds still are entered in the race, assigned to his longtime assistant and former apprentice, Tim Yakteen — and the sport’s Baffert-loathing community surely is rooting against Taiba and Messier. The perception in some quarters would be that Baffert still won the Derby in absentia. “I think no matter how those horses run, they’ll be Bob’s,’’ the iconic trainer D. Wayne Lukas told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Now, the general public, a lot of them, won’t know the difference. All the horse people will know they are Bob’s.”
Even if one wins — the line Thursday had Messier at 8-1, Taiba at 12-1 — the record books will list Yakteen as the trainer, thankfully. When he was greeted by a throng of reporters at his barn this week, he took a video of the scene with his smartphone. “My boys will never believe this,’’ he said. “I’ve sort of had a lottery ticket dropped in my lap. I’m trying to go to the window and cash it.” But much as NBC will try to mush up the narrative as an American fantasy, keep this firmly in mind: Yakteen is Baffert’s guy, period — once going so far to physically attack a rival trainer who’d trashed Baffert.
Saturday might not be a heavy gambling day at America’s sportsbooks, with bettors also soured by the scandals while knowing three straight days of rain could leave the track muddy. But without Baffert, the industry’s filth won’t hover as much as usual. In early July, as a direct outgrowth of 2020 Congressional intervention, something called the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act begins its first phase. We have every reason to be suspicious, particularly when anti-doping rules don’t kick in until 2023. Nor should we forget that Baffert is only one of numerous bad actors in the sport. Another trainer, Jorge Navarro, was hit with a five-year prison sentence and $25.8 million in fines for a doping conspiracy. An FBI investigation resulted in two dozen indictments. How many crooks weren’t caught?
But if there’s still dope out there, there’s also hope. Churchill Downs, which led the legal charge against a legend, has wiped its facilities clean of almost all Baffert mentions. A lounge in the clubhouse, formerly named for him, has been re-christened the Ben A. Jones Lounge in honor of the other six-time-winning Derby trainer. Wrote Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde: “Bob Baffert is not here. Not welcome here.” The only hint that he’s alive were his recent comments about Yakteen.
“He wins races and his horses look well. This is a good opportunity for him. He’s never had these kind of horses in his barn. I really trust him. That’s the main thing,” Baffert told the Los Angeles Times. “This is a chance to be career-changing. You hate to lose the horses, but the horse makes the trainer.”
So if Bob Baffert himself says he isn’t needed at the Kentucky Derby, let me hoist a suggestion to all Americans. A troubadour named Dan Fogelberg once wrote a song about the Run for the Roses. Saturday would be a fine time to cue it up.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.