Baffert rallies for return of live racing at Santa Anita

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LOS ANGELES — Kentucky Derby-winning trainers Bob Baffert and Doug O’Neill joined horse racing advocates rallying outside a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday in an effort to convince government officials to allow the resumption of live racing at Santa Anita.

Even behind a mask, the white-haired Baffert was easily recognizable as he carried a sign proclaiming, “We support horse racing.” His wife, Jill, toted one noting the economic impact of racing in California: $2.47 billion and 17,000 jobs.

O’Neill has previously helped stage rallies for backstretch workers outside Santa Anita to counter animal rights activists who have urged the end of racing in the state.

“It was very nice to see them there,” Oscar De La Torre said of Baffert and O’Neill. “It sends a very powerful message.”

De La Torre, an advocate for backstretch workers, organized the rally that included several horse owners. Their early-morning duties at the track prevented many workers from attending.

De La Torre said horse racing wasn’t mentioned during the board’s meeting in downtown Los Angeles.

“But I can guarantee you that they’re very aware that our community is active and committed to bringing back live racing to Santa Anita,” he said afterward.

The board met for the first time since Santa Anita submitted a proposal to the county detailing its plans should racing be allowed to resume. The Arcadia track had been racing without fans from March 12-27. That’s when the county health department ordered a stop, saying the sport wasn’t considered an essential business during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our equine athletes do not transmit the COVID-19 virus,” De La Torre said. “We have had zero reports of COVID-19 at Santa Anita and Los Alamitos, which has been running live racing unabated since the outbreak. That gives us a precedent that we can have live racing without spectators safely.”

Racing advocates were urged to file public comments before the meeting. Board chairman Kathryn Barger, whose district includes Santa Anita, said over 800 comments were received.

“We’ve put up a lot of great protocols,” said Santa Anita-based trainer Peter Eurton, who didn’t attend the rally. “There’s no reason why in our eyes we can’t have safe racing and keep everyone healthy.”

De La Torre was encouraged by the board’s unanimous passing of a road map to economic recovery for the county.

“We’re very hopeful that live racing at Santa Anita without spectators will be a part of that plan,” he said.

Santa Anita’s stable area has about 1,700 horses and 750 workers who live and work onsite. Morning training has continued during the pandemic.

“Many of our workers are self-quarantined,” De La Torre said. “They live and work at Santa Anita.”

Newgate wins Robert B. Lewis Stakes; Baffert runs 1-2-3-4

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Newgate won the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes by a neck, with Bob Baffert as the trainer of all four horses in the Kentucky Derby prep race at Santa Anita.

Ridden by Frankie Dettori, Newgate ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.11 and paid $4 and $2.60 as the even-money favorite. There was no show wagering because of the field size.

Hard to Figure returned $5.20 at 12-1 odds. Worcester was another 1 3/4 lengths back in third. Arabian Lion was fourth.

“So much improvement in all these horses,” Baffert said. “I was actually nervous before the race, worried that something weird might happen, but I can relax now.”

The Lewis was a Kentucky Derby prep race, but no points were awarded because Baffert has been banned for two years by Churchill Downs Inc. The Hall of Fame trainer was in Louisville to testify in federal court as he seeks a temporary injunction to end the suspension, which runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet. It was meted out following a failed drug test by Medina Spirit after the colt finished first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

Newgate earned his first graded stakes victory. The colt was second, beaten by a neck in the Sham Stakes last month in his previous start.

“Frankie Dettori has been teaching him how to just sit back, relax and come with a punch and that’s what he did today,” Baffert said.

The victory, worth $120,000, increased Newgate’s career earnings to $241,975, with two wins in six starts.

Baffert: 2-year Churchill Downs suspension hurt reputation

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs never gave advance notice nor reached out to explain its two-year suspension, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said in federal court, and reiterated that the penalty has caused irreparable harm to his business and reputation.

Baffert has sued the historic track and is seeking a temporary injunction to stop his suspension following a failed drug test by the now-deceased Medina Spirit after the colt came in first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

The suspension for a series of failed tests by his horses runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet and could exclude Baffert from the Derby for a second consecutive spring.

Almost a year ago, Kentucky racing officials disqualified Medina Spirit and suspended Baffert for 90 days for those failed tests. Churchill Downs elevated Derby runner-up Mandaloun to winner.

“They’ve hurt my reputation,” Baffert said during nearly two hours of testimony in U.S. District Court. “My horses should’ve made much more money. I didn’t run for 90 days, and I had to let people go.”

Churchill Downs wants the case dismissed, citing nine failed tests by Baffert-trained horses as justification for disciplining horse racing’s most visible figure. The list of violators includes 2020 Kentucky Oaks third-place finisher Gamine, who was ultimately disqualified.

Medina Spirit failed his test for having in his system the corticosteroid betamethasone, which Baffert and attorney Clark Brewster have argued came from an ointment rather than an injection.

Track president Mike Anderson said the decision by Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen stemmed from Baffert’s “refusal to take responsibility for repeat violations” during a news conference at his backside barn after Medina Spirit’s failed test was revealed.

“We wanted to make a statement that this was a consequence of not doing the right thing,” Anderson said.

Attorneys Matt Benjamin and Christine Demana, who are representing Churchill Downs, also disputed Baffert’s contention that business has suffered by noting his latest crop of promising 3-year-old colts on this year’s Derby trail.

One of them, Arabian Knight, won last week’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn by 5+ lengths to give Baffert his record sixth win in the race. The horse is ineligible to earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points as the winner because of Baffert’s suspension.

A slide presented also showed that Baffert horses made 477 starts from May 10, 2021, through December 2022 and won marquee races such as the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Corniche, the Eclipse winner) along with Grade 1 wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Malibu Stakes (Taiba).

Friday’s 3 1/2-hour hearing followed four hours of testimony on Thursday. District Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings gave no indication when she would rule. But Brewster said he expects a decision “within several days.”

Baffert testified that he had had a good relationship with Churchill Downs, though he noted that he was paying for his seats at the track and having to “grovel” to get them. He also insisted that he tried to be a good ambassador for horse racing, especially after American Pharoah and Justify won the Triple Crown in 2015 and 2018, respectively.

“I think today was great because I finally got to tell my story in a nonbiased atmosphere,” he said. “I hope for the best, and hopefully we’ll be here.”