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.