Bob Baffert is winning races and losing ground.
Corniche’s victory in last Friday’s American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita established the Baffert-trained 2-year old as a leading contender for next May’s Kentucky Derby, the 15-1 favorite according to theoddsmaker William Hill Nevada. But a federal court ruling Tuesday further clouded the Hall of Fame trainer’s prospects of competing in the 2022 Triple Crown and could cause some of his clients to reassess their commitments.
In dismissing Baffert’s charge of contempt against the New York Racing Association, Judge Carol Bagley Amon cleared the way for a disciplinary hearing that could enable NYRA to follow through on a thwarted attempt to suspend the trainer from the three racetracks it operates: Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga.
If Baffert were excluded from the Belmont Stakes in addition to the two-year suspension imposed by Churchill Downs, he would be ineligible to compete in two of the three legs of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown.
Rejecting the argument NYRA was attempting to circumvent an earlier injunction by scheduling a disciplinary hearing after failing to provide the trainer due process, Amon said, “This is an entirely different scenario,” and stressed that her July 14 ruling had not addressed the merits of Baffert’s case, merely that he was entitled to a hearing.
“I didn’t make a ruling that (NYRA’s) reasons were invalid in the last hearing,” Amon said. “I said (Baffert) should be able to answer them.”
NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna said a pre-hearing conference has been scheduled for Oct. 11 to determine the date of an evidentiary hearing.
“We are gratified by the court’s decision allowing NYRA to move forward with its administrative hearing against Bob Baffert,” McKenna said. “The court found that NYRA’s actions were consistent with both the letter and spirit of the July 14 order. NYRA’s focus in this matter is protecting the integrity of the sport of thoroughbred racing in accordance with the requirements of due process.”
Churchill Downs adopted a similar position in announcing Baffert’s two-year suspension in June, asserting the trainer’s “record of testing failures threatens public confidence in thoroughbred racing and the reputation of the Kentucky Derby.” Last month, the track doubled down on that decision by announcing horses would be ineligible to accumulate Kentucky Derby qualifying points if trained directly or indirectly by a trainer suspended by the track.
At the time, Baffert was the only trainer who met that description. Churchill Downs subsequently suspended trainer Karl Broberg for “failure to properly care” for an injured horse.
To date, the American Pharoah Stakes is the only race Baffert has entered that carries qualifying points for the 2022 Derby. Winning it while trained by Baffert cost Corniche 10 qualifying points. But as the Derby draws nearer, and the points value of prep races increases, owners may have to weigh their loyalty to the trainer against a 3-year-old’s only chance to run for the roses.
During a recent appearance on Ron Flatter’s racing podcast, Louisville horseman Jack Wolf said Baffert could have his pick of the 32 yearlings purchased by Starlight Racing, but also acknowledged, “If the horses are not allowed in (the Derby), we’re going to have to find another trainer.”
With seven months remaining until Derby 148, owners still have plenty of time to deliberate and/or litigate. Not until the February Risen Star and Rebel Stakes are prep races worth as many as 50 Derby qualifying points to the winner. Realistically, a top four showing in any of eight final Derby preps could be enough to qualify.
Brooklyn Strong made the Derby last year with just 10 qualifying points. In 2020, Money Moves reached the race with no qualifying points.
“The last two preps for the Derby are 50 points for the winner and then 100 points for the winner,” Wolf said. “We’d know by then if the horse was a contender for the Derby. (Then) we’d have to go to Plan B, I guess.”
Publicly, at least, Bob Baffert remains focused on Plan A.
“We’re just going to let the process play itself out and not think about this now,” he said after Corniche’s victory last Friday. “The main thing is to keep ’em healthy and have ’em ready for the next dance.”