Horse racing industry ‘treading new waters’ amid Baffert’s suspension from Churchill Downs, experts say

Published: Jun. 2, 2021 at 11:33 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Trainers and horse racing enthusiasts alike are shocked by not only Bob Baffert’s two-year suspension from Churchill Downs, but also the speed at which a large corporation made the decision to do so.

Baffert was suspended by Churchill Downs Incorporated on Wednesday after he won a record seventh Derby on May 1 with Medina Spirit. The horse then failed his post-race drug test. On Wednesday, a second sample requested by Baffert confirmed the faulty test result.

“I think we’re treading some new water here,” Dale Romans, a thoroughbred horse trainer with 1,850 wins under his belt, said.

Romans is one of many people stunned by Churchill Downs’ decision to suspend Kentucky Derby 147′s winning trainer. In his opinion, Churchill Downs Inc. overstepped the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s role. Usually, the KHRC makes the decision on who is suspended and for how long, and then the tracks follow suit.

“There’s rules and regulations,” Romans said. “(There is) due process put in place to protect both sides. I don’t like the precedent of Churchill jumping the racing commission and not letting him get his full due process.”

Leaders at Churchill Downs noted Baffert had dozens of violations before the 147th Derby, with the 2021 Derby constituting his 30th incident.

The CEO of Churchill Downs, Bill Carstenjen, issued the following statement:

“CDI has consistently advocated for strict medication regulations so that we can confidently ensure that horses are fit to race and the races are conducted fairly. Reckless practices and substance violations that jeopardize the safety of our equine and human athletes or compromise the integrity of our sport are not acceptable and as a company we must take measures to demonstrate that they will not be tolerated. Mr. Baffert’s record of testing failures threatens public confidence in thoroughbred racing and the reputation of the Kentucky Derby. Given these repeated failures over the last year, including the increasingly extraordinary explanations, we firmly believe that asserting our rights to impose these measures is our duty and responsibility.”

Drew Deener, an avid horse racing fanatic and the morning host of ESPN Louisville, said the sport is losing a star. As somebody who attends Churchill Downs every year, he said the track has sent a profound message to spectators, trainers, and everyone in the stands.

“This effectively ends Bob Baffert’s career on the East Coast for at least two years, it seems to me,” Deener said. “Everybody who’s an owner, you want to win the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs just told you, you can’t win with Bob Baffert for at least two years.”

Baffert’s indefinite suspension announcement on the day after Medina Spirit failed the post-race test to the two-year suspension announcement on Wednesday is a rapid turnaround for Louisville’s world-renowned horse track, Deener and Romans said.

“A lot of emotion involved, when you mess with the Kentucky Derby in our industry, there’s going to be emotions involved,” Romans said. “It’s the economic engine that drives this whole train.”

Deener said betting handles are still at a high and continue to climb, showcasing that despite the announcement, there still seems to be trust between the public and horse racing.

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