Arkansas racing officials vote not to suspend Bob Baffert

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Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert on Tuesday successfully appealed his 15-day suspension to the Arkansas Racing Commission, allowing the six-time Kentucky Derby winner to resume preparations to run Medina Spirit in next weekend’s Derby.

Baffert was fined and suspended last year by Arkansas stewards for a pair of drug positives after Charlatan and Gamine tested positive for the painkiller lidocaine following their wins at Oaklawn Park on May 2. Charlatan won a division of the $1 million Arkansas Derby, while Gamine won another race. Both horses were disqualified and stripped of their purse money.

After 13 1/2 hours of testimony from 14 witnesses over two days, the commission voted unanimously to reduce Baffert’s fines to $5,000 per horse, restore the horses’ placings and purse money, and overturn his suspension.

“There’s abundant evidence that the horses were exposed to lidocaine,” Michael Post, one of the commissioners, said before deliberations began. “I trust our labs and I trust our people. But there was also abundant evidence that it would be below what is performance-enhancing.”

Baffert expressed relief afterward when reached by phone.

“It’s been an emotional drain. I’m happy with the results,” he told The Associated Press. “I’m happy that the racing commissioners listened to all the people we brought in there. I want to thank them.”

Baffert’s attorney, Craig Robertson, told the AP that a larger issue in racing involves threshold levels in drug testing.

“We really ought to set thresholds at levels where they have some sort of pharmacological effect on a horse and effect on the race instead of what we’re doing now, which is setting levels on how sensitive we can get our testing,” he said by phone. “When you’re picking up substances at a picogram level, there are so many opportunities for contamination it creates a problem.”

A picogram is a trillionth of a gram.

Baffert called the two-day hearing “very educational.”

“I didn’t realize how easily you can get contaminated,” he told the AP. “The conversation needs to be revisited on the testing procedures. You can just ruin somebody’s reputation and their livelihood. I’m just worried that it can happen again unless they change something. Hopefully, the science will get better.”

Baffert testified in his own defense for about 30 minutes during the administrative hearing that was shown live online.

“I really don’t feel we did anything wrong,” Baffert told the commission. “We know for sure we did not administer lidocaine; it came from somewhere. I wanted to clear my name. We don’t operate that way. I’m very proud of my operation. We would never take some kind of edge.”

Lidocaine, a widely used anesthetic in racing, is considered a Class 2 drug by the Association of Racing Commissioners International and use of it carries a penalty of a 15- to 60-day suspension and a fine of $500 to $1,000 for a first offense.

Evidence presented Monday showed the level of lidocaine found by ARC testing in Gamine was 185 picograms, while Charlatan had 46 picograms. The drug has a legal threshold of 20 picograms.

Baffert and Robertson contended the failed tests were the result of inadvertent contamination because of a pain patch worn by his assistant Jimmy Barnes, who saddled both horses. Barnes has chronic pain after previously breaking his pelvis.

The patch he used contained trace amounts of lidocaine. The drug was transferred from Barnes’ hands through the application of tongue ties on both horses, Baffert’s representatives have said.

Baffert said he phoned Barnes in Southern California to inform him of the hearing’s outcome.

“He was just so relieved because he felt so bad,” the trainer said. “It was hard on him. He wanted to quit.”

The Arkansas stewards had suspended Baffert for violating Rule 1233, which states that a trainer shall ultimately be responsible for the condition of any horse that is entered regardless of the acts of any third parties.

“I’m responsible for anything I have control over,” Baffert testified. “I don’t know if we’ll ever know what happened.”

Charlatan’s owners will receive $300,000 in purse money; Gamine’s owners will get $36,000.

Pegasus races planned for Gulfstream and Santa Anita in 2024

Horse racing on Opening day of the winter-spring meet at Santa Anita Park.
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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – After seven Pegasus World Cup events, it’s evidently time for change.

1/ST Racing, which has hosted the entirety of the Pegasus series to this point at Gulfstream Park, is planning for two Pegasus days in 2024 – one at Gulfstream and the other at Santa Anita. Details aren’t finalized and it’s unclear how it would fit in the racing calendar, but 1/ST is planning for both dirt and turf Pegasus races as part of the Santa Anita program.

Gulfstream played host to the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on the dirt Saturday, along with the $1 million Pegasus Turf and the $500,000 Pegasus Filly and Mare Turf.

“I’d really love to see that we bring it to the West Coast,” 1/ST President and CEO Belinda Stronach said. “That will probably happen in 2024. What we did this year for 2023 was said, `OK, we have a number of great race days, let’s coordinate those better and call it the 1/ST Racing Tour and recognize great achievements within our own footprint.”

Saturday marked the first stop on that new 1/ST Racing Tour. Along with some of the biggest race days at 1/ST tracks – like Florida Derby day at Gulfstream on April 1, Santa Anita Derby day on April 8 and the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 20 – there are a pair of days where the tour will be running simultaneously.

This coming Saturday, Gulfstream will play host to the Holy Bull while Santa Anita has the Robert B. Lewis – both of them Kentucky Derby prep races.

And on March 4, Gulfstream has the Fountain of Youth, another major Derby prep, while San Anita has the Big Cap. Plans call for coordinated post times at those two tracks on those days to provide the best racing action every 20 minutes, as well as some unique betting options.

“We can never rest on our laurels,” Stronach said. “We have to keep moving forward. We have a great team that’s really committed.”

The main Pegasus race is one of the biggest-paying races in North America. Art Collector claimed about $1.8 million from a $3 million purse with his win on Saturday. In 2022, only the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic and $4 million Breeders’ Cup Turf featured bigger prizes among U.S. races, and the $3 million Pegasus purse is equal to the one offered last year at the Kentucky Derby.

Regardless of what happens with the Santa Anita plan for future Pegasus events, Stronach insisted Gulfstream will continue having Pegasus days. There has even been talk about Gulfstream playing host to Breeders’ Cup races again, something that hasn’t happened since 1999.

“This is staying here in Miami,” Stronach said. “Pegasus has a home here in Miami. We can’t move Pegasus from Miami. We have great partners here and it’s more than just a day now. We have deep roots here in Miami.”

Arabian Knight earns Baffert record 6th win in Southwest

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Arabian Knight won the $750,000 Southwest Stakes by 5 1/2 lengths at Oaklawn, giving Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert his record sixth victory in the race.

The colt came into the Kentucky Derby prep as one of the most highly touted 3-year-olds in the country. Arabian Knight, who was purchased for $2.3 million as a 2-year-old, was making his second career start and first on a sloppy track in front of 27,000 fans in Arkansas.

“These good horses are hard to come by,” said Baffert, who was on hand in Hot Springs. “We’ve had a lot of luck here at Oaklawn, so it was nice to have a horse like this.”

However, Arabian Knight was ineligible to earn the Kentucky Derby qualifying points awarded to the winner because Baffert has been suspended for two years by Churchill Downs Inc. The penalty, which ends shortly after this year’s Derby on May 6, stems from Medina Spirit’s medication violation after the colt won the 2021 Derby and was later disqualified. Baffert is challenging the ban in court.

Ridden by John Velazquez, Arabian Knight ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:43.50 and paid $2.80 to win. He is 2-0 and has career earnings of $544,275.

“He ran 1:43 and change, that’s racehorse time and he did it without taking a deep breath,” Baffert said. “This was a big effort.”

Red Route One closed from last to finish second, and Frosted Departure was third. Sun Thunder was fourth, followed by Jace’s Road, Corona Bolt, El Tomate and Western Ghent.

At Gulfstream in Florida, Baffert’s entry Defunded finished second in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup, beaten by 4 1/2 lengths by Art Collector on Saturday.