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

Nothing but naked lightbulbs and vacant stalls filled Barn 33 nine days before the 148th Kentucky Derby. 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 is not in attendance. This is a no-no. Everything has been cleaned from here.

The signs honoring the white-haired trainer’s six Kentucky Derby victories and two Triple Crown victories have been removed. During a construction 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. The signs never went up again without Baffert.

But Churchill and Baffert had long had a symbiotic relationship—he’d been wonderful for the Derby, and the Derby had been 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 repainted those placards on the Barn 33 wall as soon as the paint dried in better times.

There’s more. A partitioned room on the second floor of the clubhouse, previously known as the Baffert Lounge, is now known as the Ben A. Jones Lounge, after 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, petitions to ban Baffert from other Triple Crown states, and heated rhetoric. This was a nasty breakup, and it’s now the dominant theme of this year’s race. 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 final legal challenge 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 magazine . “I’m looking forward to supporting them on 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 the sticker’s intriguing appearance as the last Baffert barn item bring to mind the lead character’s deathbed speech from the iconic film. Kane, Citizen . Grandiose plutocrat Charles Foster Kane dies alone in exile after mentioning the name of his boyhood sled, which provided as an emotional link to a more innocent moment in his life.

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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 Times of New York 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 examined and found to be positive. Despite this, word of the positive test remained hidden. 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 excellent Baffert 3-year-olds: Charlatan, the Arkansas Derby winner, and Gamine, the allowance winner. The two were found to have an excess of the painkiller lidocaine, according to Oaklawn Park. W. Baffert, Baffert’s lawyer in the case 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 overturned the DQs of both horses and lifted Baffert’s 15-day punishment, however the trainer was fined $10,000. Gamine tested positive for 185 picograms of lidocaine, while Charlatan tested positive for 46; 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 disqualified from a second race before that appeal was heard, this time the 2020 Kentucky Oaks, in which she placed third as the strong favorite in a race postponed to September due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The positive test resulted from an anti-inflammatory betamethasone overdose 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 did not 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

Medina Spirit had failed the post-race drug test for an overage of betamethasone eight days after pulling off the Kentucky Derby upset at 12–1 odds in 2021. Churchill imposed an indefinite suspension right away. Baffert initially stated that Medina Spirit had never been given the drug, but then clarified that it was a constituent of 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 only in terms of cumulative skepticism but also in 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.) Times of Los Angeles Baffert’s horses have died in a small percentage of the epidemic of horse deaths that has shaken Southern California racing in the last three years, according to previous reports from last October.)

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 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 US Attorney’s Office announced that 27 persons had been accused in a “systematic, multinational plot among trainers, vets, and others to cheat using misbranded and contaminated medications,” with one accusation being that designer pharmaceuticals were not detectable 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 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 raises further doubts beyond what the test results suggest.

Even so, horses that win large 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 string of excuses were not well received, from jimson marijuana to a medicated patch to an injection timeline gone bad to a surprisingly potent ointment. Especially after Baffert promised in November 2020 that he would “do all possible” to ensure he didn’t have 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 ascribed that test result to a groom who was taking both DayQuil and NyQuil, which went into the horse’s system.)

In horse racing, tampering with the Run for the Roses is considered a deadly offense, and Baffert had done just that. In the history of America’s oldest continuous sporting event, Medina Spirit received only the second pharmaceutical 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 magazine Baffert’s test findings and Kentucky’s race-day medication guidelines were both clear, and the trainer “was treated fairly.” We were level-headed and rational in our approach to the facts. Bob’s failure to accept responsibility for his conduct disappointed us. Other than the bluster from Bob’s attorneys, I believe this is one of those situations where there isn’t much dispute.”

In an interview, Carstanjen referred to Baffert as a “cheat” or “cheater” three times. He resented Baffert’s attempts to divert culpability for the failed drug tests, calling his arguments “confusing and often absurd.” “I believe he embarrassed the entire industry, and we all felt under siege.”

Baffert told SI that he had a “excellent connection” with Churchill in the past, but that his efforts to meet with the track’s administration “to fix these concerns” 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 equitably regulate the sport, given the different levels of allowed medication and fines administered to trainers and jockeys in Arkansas and California. The Horse Racing Integrity and Welfare Unit, which supervises medication education and enforcement, will be established by HISA in collaboration with Drug Free Sport International on July 1. Churchill Downs is one of the organizations that supports HISA. “Right now, medication is very fragmented and managed differently by each state,” Carstanjen remarked. “A national approach is something we really support.”

“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 viewpoints, it’s understandable that Churchill would prefer someone other than Messier or Taiba to win the Derby and lend secondhand validation to Baffert. Because it is the conclusion reached by practically everyone in the game.

“They’re still Bob’s horses,” trainer D. stated. Wayne Lukas, a four-time Derby winner whose 25-year relationship with Baffert has gone from hostile to friendly. “Even when he’s not active, he’s interested,” said fellow trainer Norm Casse.

Yakteen worked as a 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 since the van delivering his horses to the Churchill stable area was running late. The historic edifice was silent on Sunday; the morning training hours had passed, and there were no races scheduled for that lovely afternoon. The massive grandstand was devoid of people. Birds in the trees and flags rippling in a fierce breeze were the only things moving.

The 57-year-old Yakteen went up to the gap in the backstretch where horses can access the track from the stable area, dressed in his barn uniform of blue trousers, a pressed blue dress shirt, and a baseball cap. He was by himself. Yakteen put his hands on his hips and looked left, right, and straight ahead.

A dramatized version of the scene will be in the inevitable movie if this nobody trainer wins the Derby with a horse he inherited six weeks before the event. The vantage point from which Yakteen stood affords possibly the greatest view of the famed Twin Spires, and he would undoubtedly remain there in the film to take in the panorama and consider what fate has placed in his hands.

The truth, though, was far less dramatic. The Spires were only visible for a brief moment.

“I had some spare time; it’s a wonderful day,” Yakteen chuckled. “I was just curious about the racing surface.”

Nonetheless, the event was charged with symbolism. Yakteen didn’t realize it, but he had landed exactly where Baffert had stood many times before. When his horses recorded big breezes, Baffert drove over to the Churchill front side, but on mornings when a normal jog or gallop was on the work tab, he watched them from the rail gap. Yakteen was practically following in the footsteps of Baffert.

Can he 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 ridden a Derby horse before. “These would be the best 3-year-olds I’ve had since going out on my own,” Yakteen remarked.

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 huge 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 unnoticeable in a sport that receives substantial media attention only during the spring Triple Crown series and the autumn Breeders’ Cup.

Searching the internet for tales on him yields few results. But one from July 2021 stands out: a brawl between Yakteen and fellow trainer Richard Baltas at Santa Anita, which purportedly arose from a disagreement over the Arkansas Racing Commission’s decision on Baffert’s ’20 medication breaches there. According to a report, Times of Los Angeles Baltas was “badmouthing” Baffert, according to the tale, and “Yakteen came to his defense, vocally and violently,” according to the story. Both trainers were punished for the incident.

Taiba, one of Baffert’s two horses competing in the Kentucky Derby, had health difficulties earlier this year.

Getty Images/Andy Lyons

Logic implies 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 choice to tab Yakteen. If you send them to Florida, they will 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 regulations 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 communicated, a former assistant might easily recreate Baffert’s standard training program 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 big chestnut horse was placed on the Santa Anita “vet’s list,” indicating that he may be the most inexperienced Derby runner ever. That indicates veterinarians were concerned about Taiba, who is owned by Amr Zedan, the owner of Medina Spirit. Taiba’s condition was categorized as “unsound,” implying a leg problem. According to Santa Anita writer Jeff Siegel, who was present, jockey John Velazquez eased the horse back to the winner’s circle immediately after the race. “Johnny thought he felt something odd 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 placed on the vet’s list, but it was insignificant.”

Taiba has to wait seven days before recording any timed workout and 15 days before recording 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, adhere to a strict time schedule, and submit to post-work sample testing.

Taiba returned to the work tab on March 18 and put in three formal 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 strategy, entering a rarely raced and lightly conditioned colt in a 20-horse alley event. 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 overtrained him.”

Yakteen is learning what it’s like to have every decision he makes analyzed on 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 went for his phone and snapped a quick video of the crowd. “My boys would never believe this,” the father of two said as he took questions and gave quick, sometimes anxious responses.

He’s new to these situations, but he’s well aware of the story he’s become. The gravity of the issue and its peculiarity are not lost on a man who has made a livelihood 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. I’ve never been in the winner’s circle before. Never received widespread acclaim as the winner of America’s most prestigious horse race. But the statue suggests differently, with museum continuity taking precedence above historical truth.

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 simply, ‘OK, cool.'” ‘It is what it is.’ It didn’t feel like that. It’s the terrible conclusion to a long and drawn-out process. 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, Bob Baffert is only a phantom, 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 amount and a strong signal.

Bob Baffert has no plans to retire from racing, and he is determined to win the sport’s most prestigious events, including the Kentucky Derby, which he has been barred from entering.

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