Trainer Bob Baffert shows off Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit on May 2, 2021. Churchill Downs/Coady Photography.

Judge Rules in Favor of Baffert in Suit Against NYRA

TVG Staff Report

A New York federal judge issued a ruling on July 14 nullifying the New York Racing Association’s temporary ban of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, saying that the organization acted unconstitutionally by failing to provide him due process.

Judge Carol Bagley Amon of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York wrote in the ruling that Baffert was “entitled” to hearing before NYRA issued its suspension of him on May 17 in the wake of Kentucky Derby (G1) first-place finisher Medina Spirit testing positive for the corticosteroid betamethasone in his post-race sample.

Dave O’Rourke, president of NYRA, had argued that its suspension of Baffert was “in the best interest of Thoroughbred racing” and that allowing Baffert or those employed by him to occupy stall space at its tracks “would compromise NYRA’s investment in its operations as well as the public’s perception of Thoroughbred racing generally.”

In her ruling, Amon wrote that “even if NYRA had probable cause to suspend Baffert…a prompt post-suspension hearing would have been required” and that while NYRA said it was acting within its rights as private property, “the laws and contracts that presently govern NYRA demonstrate that, as every other court to consider the issue has held, NYRA’s suspension of Baffert constitutes state action….in addition to the state involvement in NYRA’s operations, NYRA’s financial interests are also deeply intertwined with the state, with each benefiting the other.”

Amon added that, “numerous rules and regulations already safeguard the interests NYRA argues for here, and enjoining this suspension of Baffert will not prevent the continued enforcement of those rules…. Moreover, as uncontested data show, NYRA has permitted numerous trainers to race at NYRA this season who have medication violation histories comparable to or more serious than Baffert’s.”

Amon’s ruling comes on the eve of the start of the boutique Saratoga meet and the prestige that comes with being able to compete in those races was factored in.

“The hardships that Baffert would suffer absent an injunction weigh heavily on the other side of the scale,” Amon wrote. “The suspension is indefinite, and NYRA concedes at most that Baffert’s claims might “be decided within the year.” But the 2021 Saratoga summer meet is a one-time opportunity. And given that many of the races are limited to horses of a certain age, an inability to compete in those races now means those horses will never have the chance. Baffert will face substantial damage to his income, client base, and reputation if he cannot enter horses at NYRA races for the indefinite future.

“I am sensitive to NYRA’s concerns about Baffert’s involvement in the events surrounding Medina Spirit’s Kentucky Derby performance, and the fear that history might repeat itself in New York. But for the reasons stated, the actual and substantial harm that Baffert will suffer absent an injunction outweighs the speculative harms that NYRA raises.” I am sensitive to NYRA’s concerns about Baffert’s involvement in the events surrounding Medina Spirit’s Kentucky Derby performance, and the fear that history might repeat itself in New York. But for the reasons stated, the actual and substantial harm that Baffert will suffer absent an injunction outweighs the speculative harms that NYRA raises.”

Following the ruling, O’Rourke issued the following statement:

“On May 17, 2021, at a time of crisis for the sport, the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) took emergency action to temporarily suspend Bob Baffert from racing or training at Belmont Park, Aqueduct Racetrack and Saratoga Race Course. This measure was taken to protect the integrity of thoroughbred racing. NYRA will continue to honor that commitment so that fans, the betting public and racing participants can be confident in a level playing field. 

“NYRA is reviewing the court’s decision today to determine our legal options and next steps. What is clear, however, is that Mr. Baffert’s actions and behavior can either elevate or damage the sport. We expect Mr. Baffert to exert appropriate controls over his operation. 

“Importantly, the court upheld NYRA’s authority to exclude individuals from its racetracks whose conduct is contrary to the best interests of Thoroughbred racing. The court also rejected Baffert’s argument that NYRA had no legal authority to take the action that it did.”