Trainer Bob Baffert Won’t Be at the Kentucky Derby, but Racing Still Can’t Shake Him

Nine days before the 148th Kentucky Derby, Barn 33 was hauntingly quiet, with nothing but naked lightbulbs and vacant stalls. In the shedrow, there were two pairs of shoes resting against the wall, but no humans or horses. For a quarter century, the barren beige wall near the entrance to what has been the mecca of the Churchill Downs stable area screamed a silent message:

Bob Baffert isn’t in the room. This is not the place for you. Everything has been wiped from this area.

The signs honoring the white-haired trainer’s six Kentucky Derby victories and two Triple Crown victories have been removed. During a maintenance break last year, the racetrack removed everything off the walls everywhere to repaint the barns—it was then up to the residents of each barn to rehang everything, according to the firm. The signs never went up again without Baffert.

Churchill, on the other hand, had a long-standing symbiotic connection with Baffert: he was terrific for the Derby, and the Derby was fantastic for him. Fans gathered in droves to see his greatest horses or listen to the glib Californian’s steady stream of wisecracks at his barn, which was a regular stop on stable tours. Track authorities would have hung those placards back up on the Barn 33 wall as soon as the paint cured in better times.

That’s not all, though. A partitioned room on the second floor of the clubhouse, previously known as the Baffert Lounge, has been renamed the Ben A. Jones Lounge, in honor of the other winner of six Derbys. Baffert’s name and face can still be seen on panels honoring Triple Crown champions American Pharoah and Justify at the Derby Museum, but that’s about it.

Churchill’s de-Baffertization serves as a stark reminder of his precipitous fall from grace and the ensuing fierce conflict between the most renowned person and the most famous venue in American horse racing. Medina Spirit, Baffert’s record-breaking seventh Derby winner, failed a drug test following last year’s Run for the Roses, setting in motion a chain of events that ended in Baffert’s two-year ban from Churchill Downs and Medina Spirit’s disqualification as the winner.

There were lawsuits, calls to ban Baffert from other Triple Crown states, and heated rhetoric as a result. This was a nasty breakup, and it’s become the race’s most compelling story line. The battle between Bob Baffert and the Kentucky Derby has become a watershed moment in the sport’s long battle to properly medicate horses.

When the trainer’s last of many legal challenges to the Medina Spirit verdict was denied in March, the owners of his top 3-year-old horses had little alternative but to relocate their colts to another trainer if they wanted to compete for racing’s ultimate prize.

Tim Yakteen, a former Baffert assistant who was rarely involved with the barn’s best horses over two decades ago, is the lucky recipient. Yakteen arrived with three former Baffert trainees on Sunday: Doppelganger, who is entered in a Derby undercard race, and Taiba and Messier, who will both aim to win a Derby by proxy for probably the greatest trainer in the history of this old sport.

“What matters most to me is that Messier and Taiba get the opportunity to compete and win,” Baffert said in a written response to queries filed by the media. Sports Illustrated is a magazine devoted to sports. . “I’m looking forward to cheering them on this Saturday.”

Thousands of miles away, Baffert will be rooting for them. He’s been ejected from the premises, and his glory run’s trappings have vanished with him.

A bumper sticker on a faded, green office door reads, “I like Kentucky-bred Roadster,” referring to one of Baffert’s more forgettable Derby runners, the 15th-place finisher in the 2019 race.

Roadster. Rosebud?

The name and cryptic appearance of the sticker as the last Baffert barn item conjure up images of the lead character’s deathbed speech from the iconic film. Citizen Kane is a movie about a man named Kane . Grandiose plutocrat Charles Foster Kane dies alone in exile after repeating the name of his boyhood sled, which served as an emotional link to a more innocent moment in his life.

For all intents and purposes, the 2019 Triple Crown campaign was a more innocent moment for Baffert—the last innocent time, if such a thing exists in a sport that has never been simon-pure, the last time Baffert operated without a cloud of suspicion floating overhead.

Churchill Downs is one of the organizations supporting the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority, which was established by Congress in December 2020 in an attempt to regulate the sport more equally.
Sports Illustrated/Erick W. Rasco

During that summer, The New York Times is a newspaper published in New York City. Justify, his 2018 Triple Crown champion, failed a drug test after winning the Santa Anita Derby in April, setting him up to become only the 13th horse in history to sweep the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes in the same year. Justify’s positive test for scopolamine overdose did not result in a DQ, which might have kept him out of the Kentucky Derby, and the positive test was kept private.

Justify had already won the Derby by the time his split sample was tested, which also came back positive. Despite this, the positive test remained unknown to the general public. The California Horse Racing Board decided not to pursue the scopolamine case against Baffert in August 2018, citing other horses who had tested positive for the same chemical (but at levels below the permissible racing limit) after swallowing a contaminated consignment of feed to Santa Anita. The meal includes naturally occurring jimson weed, which can result in a scopolamine positive test. Despite the CHRB’s very opaque process, its decision to exonerate Justify and Baffert appeared, well, justified.

But that was just the start. Then came the disqualifications in Arkansas in May 2020 for two of Baffert’s standout 3-year-olds: Charlatan, who won the Arkansas Derby, and Gamine, who won an allowance race. The two were found to have an excess of the painkiller lidocaine, according to Oaklawn Park. W. Baffert, Baffert’s lawyer in the lawsuit. The positive test, according to Craig Robertson, was caused by Baffert aide Jimmy Barnes wearing a medicinal patch on his ailing back, which mistakenly transmitted the lidocaine from the patch to his hands, and then to the horses.

After nearly a year, the Arkansas Racing Commission restored both horses’ DQs and lifted Baffert’s 15-day punishment, but levied a $10,000 fine on the trainer. Gamine tested positive for 185 picograms of lidocaine and Charlatan for 46, according to evidence submitted before the ARC; the substance has a permissible limit of 20 picograms. Robertson stated that monitoring pharmaceutical overages in such minute amounts—a picogram is a trillionth of a gram—makes a trainer’s job far more difficult.

Gamine had tested positive and been DQ’d from a second race before that appeal was considered, this time the 2020 Kentucky Oaks, in which she finished third as the strong favorite in a race postponed to September due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The positive test resulted from an overdose of the anti-inflammatory betamethasone on race day (a medication that would haunt Baffert more several months later). Gamine had been legally given betamethasone 18 days before the Oaks, according to Baffert, after veterinarians informed that it would be at a permissible limit in the horse’s system by 14 days.

That didn’t happen. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission upheld Gamine’s DQ, and Baffert was penalized again. A DQ in the second-largest yearly event at Churchill Downs was problematic. In its most important race, what occurred next was disastrous.

Medina Spirit died later that year, as shown above with Baffert in 2021. After a five-furlong training at Santa Anita Park, the horse collapsed.
Pat McDonogh/USA Today Network/Courier Journal

Eight days after Medina Spirit shocked the world by winning the Kentucky Derby at 12–1 odds, news broke that the colt had failed a post-race drug test due to an overabundance of betamethasone. Churchill imposed an indefinite suspension right away. Baffert initially stated that Medina Spirit had never been given the drug, but later changed his mind and stated that it was an ingredient in a topical ointment, not an injection, that was used to treat a rash. (Baffert and Medina Spirit’s owner, Amr Zedan, unsuccessfully contended that the ointment provided no competitive advantage and hence should not be considered illegal.)

Many sports fans had become tired of the repeating positive tests and explanations that it was all just terrible luck, bad medicine, or bad legislation by that time. Baffert’s reaction to the positive Medina Spirit test was particularly off-putting, not just in terms of accumulating doubt but also in terms of combative tone. He declared himself a victim of “cancel culture” and attacked Churchill’s “knee-jerk” reaction in an interview with Dan Patrick.

(The Medina Spirit dispute was exacerbated when the horse collapsed and died following a training in December, despite the fact that a necropsy revealed no definite cause of death.) The Times of Los Angeles Baffert has had 75 horses die since 2000, either by racing, training, illness, or non-exercise accidents, according to a prior article from last October; nonetheless, Baffert trainees were a minor percentage of the spate of horse deaths that rocked Southern California racing in the last three years.)

In the aftermath of positive drug tests, sports history is riddled with powerful denials and creative reasons, many of which did not age well. Horse racing has a drug history that rivals that of cycling and track and field, not to mention a gruesome track record of horse mortality on racetracks. The sport’s image was degraded even further two years ago when the U.S. The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that 27 people had been charged in a “systematic, international scheme among trainers, vets, and others to cheat using misbranded and adulterated drugs,” according to the announcement. Among the allegations: that designer drugs could not be detected by standard testing.

Baffert was not charged in the FBI inquiry, and his lawyers have maintained that his lifetime failure rate is low for a trainer who works with so many horses. Baffert’s testing record is “enviable,” according to literature from a public-relations firm hired to work with him and his attorneys, and he is “at, or near, the very top echelon of medication rule compliance.” But the most successful trainers have long had to deal with an undercurrent of cynicism, and no one has been more successful than Baffert. This adds to the level of skepticism raised by the test results.

Even so, horses that win big races are usually given the benefit of the doubt—as long as they test clean. Baffert was confronted with a slew of high-profile positives.

His succession of explanations were not well received, from jimson weed to a medicated patch to an injection timeline gone wrong to a surprisingly powerful ointment. Especially after Baffert promised in November 2020 that he would “do everything possible” to ensure he didn’t get any more medication complaints. (That comment came after another Baffert positive test, for Dextrorphan in the system of the horse Merneith, at Del Mar in July 2020; Attorney Robertson attributed that test result to a groom who was taking both DayQuil and NyQuil, which got into the horse’s system.)

In horse racing, tampering with the Run for the Roses is considered a mortal sin, and Baffert had done just that. In the history of America’s oldest continuous sporting event, Medina Spirit became only the second medication DQ. Even the most well-known and well-known figure in the sport had to face this reality, as Churchill Downs put it: “No one is bigger than the Derby.”

Bill Carstanjen, CEO of Churchill Downs Incorporated, said Sports Illustrated is a magazine devoted to sports. Baffert’s test results and Kentucky’s race-day medication rules were both clear, and the trainer “was treated fairly.” We were clear-eyed and rational in our approach, focusing on the facts. Bob’s failure to accept responsibility for his actions was disappointing to us. Other than the rhetoric from Bob’s attorneys, I believe this is one of those situations where there isn’t much controversy.”

In an interview, Carstanjen referred to Baffert as a “cheat” or “cheater” three times. He was irritated by Baffert’s attempts to deflect blame for the failed drug tests, calling his explanations “confusing and often ridiculous.” “I believe he embarrassed the entire industry, and we all felt under siege.”

Baffert told SI that he had a “good relationship” with Churchill in the past, but that his requests to meet with the track’s leadership “to resolve these issues” were ignored. “What is perplexing and very damaging for the industry is that Churchill Downs would point to a commonly used and harmless topical ointment that no scientist says could have had an impact on a horse’s performance and call it’a medical overage,'” another Baffert attorney, Clark Brewster, told SI.

The Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) was established by Congress in December 2020 in an attempt to more uniformly regulate the sport, given the varying levels of allowable medication and sanctions applied to trainers or jockeys in Arkansas that do not necessarily apply in California. HISA’s racetrack safety rules go into effect on July 1, and the organization is collaborating with Drug Free Sport International to create a Horse Racing Integrity and Welfare Unit that will oversee medication education and enforcement. Churchill Downs is one of the organizations that supports HISA. “Right now, medication is very fragmented and handled on a state-by-state basis,” Carstanjen said. “A national approach is something we strongly believe in.”

“For far too long, Bob Baffert’s scandals have completely engulfed and overshadowed the so-called ‘Sport of Kings,'” says Marty Irby, executive director of the animal welfare organization Animal Wellness Action. “If Baffert truly wants thoroughbred horse racing to continue to be defined as a legitimate American sport, then he’ll step aside until his suspension is over and allow other trainers, breeders, owners, and jockeys the opportunity to enjoy a clean

Given their antagonistic positions, it’s understandable that Churchill would prefer someone other than Messier or Taiba to win the Derby and provide secondhand validation to Baffert. Because, if you ask almost anyone in the game, they’ll tell you that’s what they think.

“They’re still Bob’s horses,” Hall of Fame trainer D. Smith said. Wayne Lukas, a four-time Derby winner whose 25-year relationship with Baffert has progressed from adversarial to friendly. “Even when he’s not involved, he’s involved,” said fellow trainer Norm Casse.

Yakteen was a former Baffert assistant nearly two decades ago, but he has never ridden a Derby horse before.
Getty Images/Andy Lyons

Tim Yakteen took a short walk from Barn 37 to the backstretch railing because the van bringing his horses to the Churchill stable area was running late. The ancient edifice was deafeningly quiet on Sunday; the morning training hours had passed, and there were no races scheduled for that sunny afternoon. The massive grandstand was devoid of people. Birds in the trees and flags rippling in a stiff breeze were the only things moving.

The 57-year-old Yakteen strode up to the gap in the backstretch where horses can enter the track from the stable area, dressed in his barn uniform of blue jeans, a pressed blue dress shirt, and a baseball cap. He was on his own. Yakteen sat his hands on his hips and shifted his gaze to the right and left, as well as straight ahead.

A dramatized version of that scene will be in the inevitable movie if this nobody trainer wins the Derby with a horse he inherited six weeks before the race. The vantage point from which Yakteen stood offers arguably the best view of the fabled Twin Spires, and he would undoubtedly linger there in the film to take in the scene and ponder what fate has placed in his hands.

The reality, on the other hand, was decidedly less so. The Spires were only visible for a brief moment.

With a chuckle, Yakteen said, “I had time to kill; it’s a beautiful day.” “All I wanted to do was take a look at the racing track.”

Nonetheless, the moment was charged with symbolism. Yakteen didn’t realize it, but he’d landed exactly where Baffert had done so many times before. When his horses recorded major breezes, Baffert drove around to the Churchill front side, but on mornings when a routine jog or gallop was on the work tab, that rail gap was where he watched many of them. Yakteen was literally following in the footsteps of Baffert.

Will he be able to follow those footsteps all the way around the track to the winner’s circle on Saturday? It’s a perplexing prospect. Yakteen has worked as an assistant to two Hall of Famers, Bob Baffert and Charlie Whittingham, and has been training on his own since 2004, but he’s never been close to saddling a Derby horse. “These would be the best 3-year-olds I’ve had since going out on my own,” Yakteen said.

Prior to inheriting Baffert’s stars, he had 10 graded stakes victories, three of which were Grade Is. The majority of them came with two big horses: Mucho Unusual and Points Offthebench, the latter of whom won the 2013 Eclipse Award for best sprinter in the country. Yakteen, on the other hand, has been virtually invisible in a sport that receives significant mainstream attention only during the spring Triple Crown series and the autumn Breeders’ Cup.

Search the internet for stories about him and you’ll come up empty-handed. However, one from July 2021 stands out: a brawl between Yakteen and fellow trainer Richard Baltas at Santa Anita, which reportedly arose from a disagreement following the Arkansas Racing Commission’s decision on Baffert’s ’20 medication violations there. According to one source, The Times of Los Angeles Baltas was “badmouthing” Baffert, according to the story, and “Yakteen came to his defense, verbally and physically,” according to the story. Both trainers were fined for the incident.

Taiba, one of Baffert’s two horses competing in the Kentucky Derby, had health issues earlier this year.
Getty Images/Andy Lyons

Logic dictates that Yakteen’s devotion to Baffert was a major factor in his selection to inherit Taiba and Messier (not to mention inheriting exercise rider Humberto Gomez, who rode Justify in the mornings in 2018). “It made sense to keep them in the same surroundings—California, same racetrack,” Tom Ryan, bloodstock and racing manager for Messier owner SF Racing, said of the decision to tab Yakteen. If you send them to Florida, they’ll have to adjust to the water, the hay, and a variety of other factors. Tim is also an excellent horseman.”

Despite the fact that there are no rules prohibiting consultation and communication with Baffert in either California or Kentucky, Yakteen claims the two have not spoken since the horses changed hands. Even if they haven’t spoken, a former assistant could easily replicate Baffert’s standard training pattern for horses in the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby. But it’s worth noting that Yakteen didn’t go the traditional route with Taiba, which cost $1.7 million.

After winning his debut in early March, the powerful chestnut colt was placed on the Santa Anita “vet’s list,” indicating that he may be the most inexperienced Derby runner ever. That means veterinarians were concerned about Taiba, who is owned by Amr Zedan, the owner of Medina Spirit. Taiba’s condition was listed as “unsound,” implying that he had a leg problem. Jockey John Velazquez, according to Santa Anita blogger Jeff Siegel, eased the horse up quickly after the race and walked him slowly back to the winner’s circle. “Johnny thought he felt something funny behind him, so he pulled him up,” Baffert told Siegel at the time. The colt was fine by the time he returned to the winner’s circle. I’m not sure if he was put on the vet’s list or not, but it didn’t matter.”

Taiba had to wait seven days after being placed on the vet’s list in California before recording any timed workout and 15 days before an official workout (which is different from any timed work, according to Mike Marten of the California Horse Racing Board). Taiba had to pass pre- and post-work vet exams, meet a minimum time requirement, and submit to post-work sample testing as well.

Taiba returned to the work tab on March 18 and put in three official workouts before entering the Santa Anita Derby after only one career start and winning it by passing Messier in the stretch and pulling away. His ticket to Louisville was punched, but Yakteen has only worked him once since then, 19 days later and nine days before the Derby.

Baffert is known for working his horses hard and getting them ready for big races. Yakteen has taken a unique approach by entering a lightly raced and lightly conditioned colt into a 20-horse alley race. It’s a daring move. He explains, “I wanted to make sure I brought a horse to Kentucky with a full tank.” “It would be pointless for me to take a horse to Churchill that I misread and have him underperform because I over-trained him.”

Yakteen is learning what it’s like to have every decision he makes scrutinized on such a large scale. When 15–20 members of the media gathered outside Barn 37 on Monday morning for their first chance to speak with the trainer since arriving in Louisville, Yakteen deftly reached for his phone and snapped a quick video of the crowd. “My boys will never believe this,” the father of two said as he took questions and gave quick, sometimes nervous responses.

He’s new to these situations, but he’s well aware of the story he’s become. The gravity of the situation, as well as the strangeness of the situation, are not lost on a man who has made a living at the racetrack without becoming wealthy. This could be seen as a fantastic opportunity, a significant burden, or both.

“It’s like a lotto ticket fell into my lap,” Yakteen explained. “I’m attempting to cash it at the window.”

A statue of a horse with a jockey on its back and a garland of roses wrapped over its withers is one of the standing items in the Derby Museum. Every year, the jockey’s silks and the words on the horse’s saddle cloth are changed to correlate with the new winner.

Churchill had to make up a scene this year.

Mandaloun, the disqualified winner of the Kentucky Derby in 2021, never got to wear the roses. Never had a chance to be in the winner’s circle. Never received widespread acclaim as the winner of America’s most prestigious horse race. The statue, on the other hand, says otherwise, with museum continuity taking precedence above historical accuracy.

Brad Cox, a trainer in New Orleans, was packing for a race in Saudi Arabia when his phone began to ring with texts. They were messages from members of the media alerting him that he had won the Derby. The DQ of Medina Spirit was made official months later, and Mandaloun was promoted to the top rank.

Baffert, one of the most successful trainers in horse racing history, is currently serving a two-year suspension at Churchill Downs.
Pat McDonogh/USA Today Network/Courier Journal

“There was no joy of success,” Cox explained. “It was like, ‘OK, cool,'” she says. ‘It is what it is.’ It didn’t feel like that. It’s regrettable that the deal has come to an end after such a lengthy time. Perhaps something positive will come of it—perhaps pre-race testing rather than post-race testing, which is my main concern. When the horses travel over there for a race of this significance, we should know that we’re all on a fair playing field and that we won’t have to worry about a result a week later.”

The Kentucky Derby in 2022 will be overshadowed by the disaster of 2021. This time around, Bob Baffert is a ghostly non-entity, but his absence is felt—all the more so if one of his old horses wins the race.

What about the future? SI sent a query to Baffert regarding a possible return to the Derby after his suspension was completed. “The only thing I’m fighting for is to have this unfair punishment lifted because I want to keep doing what I love, which is training horses and competing,” he wrote. When my case is heard by a neutral judge, I am confident that the court will realize that the facts and the law have always been on my side.”

Consider this: Just two weeks ago, Baffert and bloodstock agent Gary Young placed a winning offer of $2.3 million for a 2-year-old colt in Ocala, Fla., on behalf of Zedan, the owner of Medina Spirit and Taiba. That’s a significant number, and it sends a strong message.

Bob Baffert has no plans to retire from racing, and he intends to compete in all of the sport’s major events, including the Kentucky Derby, where he has been ruled ineligible.

More SI Daily Cover stories can be found here:

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