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TrackNotes: Bob Baffert's Boulders

Sitting in the luxe (not, but decent) Shalimar OTB in Indio, California with Mother, I commented on a prohibitive favorite at Hollywood Park.

"Typical, that's a Baffert horse."

"I don't like him," Emily said.

"Why not?"

"There's just something about him, the way he looks. I don't trust him. I just don't like him."

With that kind of years-ago intuition that you can take to the bank, I've been wary ever since. And admittedly, still with one-quarter blinkers on.

Hall of Fame (2009) trainer Robert A. "Bob" Baffert, because of who he is and the horses he's had, the face of American Thoroughbred horse racing to people from the most gristled horseplayers to the little girls who always seem to fall in love with horses, has found himself with the sport on his shoulders and has decided to take it to the edge of the dump and toss it in.

The future of the game might be at stake. Everybody knows about the dark, shady goings-on in the game, but if Baffert is not punished, severely for once, the game itself will tell us it doesn't care about anything, including the horses themselves.

Baffert's behavior since learning that Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Horse Racing Board were working with facts that his horse Medina Spirit, first-place finisher in the May 1 Kentucky Derby, tested positive after the race for betamethasone, has been classically gutter despicable.

His strategy, not very successful, has been right out of the Trumpian Textbook. Obfuscation. Serpentine, serpentine! I am Baffert, hear me roar! First, lie, using carefully chosen, untruthful words and amazed astonishment. Then make up excuses, blame everybody else, admit there is a problem although it's not his problem or fault.

And the big one, play victim: "I do not feel safe training," Baffert said. "It's getting worse, to me. How do I enjoy, how do I move forward as a trainer knowing this can happen? It's a complete injustice, and we're going to fight it tooth and nail."

With the big followup, That's Not Me: "I know I'm the most scrutinized trainer out there. I have millions of eyes on me . . . The last thing I would want to do is do something that would jeopardize the greatest two minutes in sport." Then why did you?

The first tell was when Baffert and his lawyer flew back to Louisville and beat officials out of the starting gate, announcing the positive himself on Sunday. Official results of back-up, secondary testing would not have come back for at least a few weeks, so Baffert's bleating led to the immediate Churchill suspension.

"All I can tell you is that betamethasone - even though it is an allowed (Mine: Legalese) drug, a therapeutic (Mine: Angelic benevolence) medication, we did not give it ... In fact, Medina Spirit has never been treated with betamethasone," Baffert said Sunday.

Betamethasone is a steroidal substance that, like any steroid, I can attest, can perform miracles. It is a legal horse treatment most commonly used to ease sore joints. It can also be used topically for things like a rash or dermatitis, just like in humans.

In Kentucky, it cannot be administered less than 14 days before a race. After allowing up to 10 picograms - a trillionth of a gram - per milliliter of blood in a post-race test as of last August, the KHRB then made the decision to lower the threshold down to zero picograms in post-race testing. A big reason for that is that betamethosone can mask joint problems in a horse either visually or in the gait of a horse in the post parade, making it difficult for the on-track veterinarian to detect a potentially catastrophic condition.

Now, here, to me, is the Enola Gay hook. I chanced upon it at Horse Racing Nation, in an interview with Dr. Mary Scollay, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium in Lexington, KY. Speaking generally about betamethasone, she said the 21 picograms was found in a milliliter of blood from the horse that was tested. I have not seen this in any other media report, which will help Baffert in the public's eye. "21 picos, big deal!"

A horse has up to 50,000 milliliters of blood in its system. Twenty-one times 50,000 equals 1,050,000 picos in the blood, and tissue, muscles and organs.

"So 21 picograms, you know, you can be a little overly reductive and say that's nothing. But when you can contemplate the total sum of medication that may be in the body at that time point, it's a different story," Scollay said.

The horse was 'roided up, at least enough. Bob, the rule is zero. Baffert has said it's only 21 picos and would not have affected his performance. But it's not 21 picos. It's not. In other words, whatever he does or says is perfectly acceptable. None of the shit he puts in his horses enhances their performance, ever. Bob, NO!

Churchill Downs announced Monday that not only will Baffert be banned from entering horses at Churchill, but his entire organization will be too. Trainers often declare their assistant, in this case Jimmy Barnes, as the official trainer, until the ban or suspension is over. Steve Asmussen had a revolving door there for awhile.

On Tuesday, the Maryland Jockey Club said it would allow Baffert's horses to run in the Preakness Stakes and the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes on Friday for fillies. Betamethasone is banned in Maryland. MJC is taking an innocent-until-proven-guilty approach even when states and tracks often demonstrate reciprocity with such suspensions. Medina' could be tested again as late as Friday and the MJC agreement with Baffert says if there's a positive, it will be shouted from the crest of Old Hilltop. If it's me, I'd be embarrassed if Baffert won one of my big races.

That's the police report. What does it all mean?

Baffert, clearly the face of racing, especially on television on the big days, has a multi-ton boulder on each shoulder. Because racing officials have been so lenient of him, he carries a sense of invincibility on one side. Because he wins so much, he also lugs the most responsibility of any single individual in the sport, which he abjectly neglects for what? Money, ego, money?

Is racing afraid of him because he presents such a dashing figure in NBC interviews, to the point of being a God? On Derby weekend, the story was that his wife Jill picked out and co-owns one of their horses that won a big race. When they caught up with Bob and Jill, the NBC wonk completely ignored Jill and peppered Bob with questions. Not only did the interviewer miss the angle, Bob never said anything like, "Ask Jill, she's right here." Jill was anticipatory, disappointed and then pissed off. I don't blame her. That's the attention Bob Baffert gets.

I can't wait to see how NBC - especially Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey - handles the issue this week from Pimlico. They'll probably have two or three strong words, this is sad, we have to see how it turns out. Surprise me, Peacock. Baffert won't be there. He's holing up in California this weekend.

He's "won" seven Kentucky Derbies, seven Preakness Stakes and three Belmont Stakes. TWO(?) Triple Crowns. He's been in the money in 29 Triple Crown races. He's won 15 Breeders' Cup races, nine Santa Anita Derbies, nine Haskell Invitationals, 14 Del Mar Futurities and three Kentucky Oaks'. These have now become his burden, that he tries so desperately to safeguard inside his house of cards. Winning seems everything, at the expense of all else. ALL else.

Last fall, Baffert rose to his pulpit and made it about him. He wanted no more complaints against him, kind of like Michael Corleone's demand to Sollozzo.

He said he would pay closer attention to his own business and "run a tight ship." Train his employees on protocols. And appoint Dr. Michael Hore of the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute to "add an additional layer of protection to ensure the well-being of horses in my care and rule compliance."

We found out Wednesday the important part - the doctor helping Baffert "raise the bar and set the standard for equine safety" - never happened.

The excuse was COVID, travel, track restrictions in SoCal, all that. Hore is based in Kentucky, not even licensed to practice in California. Of course, if Baffert had found a California vet, we'd all ask "Who sent him?" I believe it still could have been done, if Baffert had really wanted to.

I've heard that even as they call them Black Holes, they're extremely dense. Both, at once. Just sayin'.

His delinquency in just recent years really seems to betray his proclamations of loving the horses. This week was beyond the pale.

He announced the drug positives Sunday, saying his horse was never even treated with betamethasone. Even said he would take blood and hairs from the horse and compare the DNA with the testing blood.

He took to Fox News, which of course indulged him - including a photo of Baffert petting a palamino - because anything bad that happens in the world in the name of "winning" is A-OK with Fox.

In an atypical bit of babble, Baffert went deep into the manure pile. "With all the noise . . . We live in a different world now. This America is different. (Churchill banning him) was like a cancel culture kind of a thing, so they're reviewing it. I haven't been told anything (by the Preakness). We're prepared to run." Keep in mind Churchill keeps its eye on every last dollar, so it doesn't want anybody messing with its Derby.

Later that day, Baffert floated the outlandish concept that a groom, who had been taking cough medicine, peed in the stall, the horse ate the hay, and . . . Can you put a steroid in drug store cough medicine?

Doesn't the bus driver feel all the people under his chassis?

I can't say how stupid Baffert is, but he had to understand, at about 1-9, that the steroid was in his horse's system. So he reloaded Ol' Betsy with another round and fired, saying his veterinarian used a topical ointment, Otomax, that contains betamethasone, to cure a case of dermatitis.

Baffert, who also provided a picture of Medina Spirit's pocked rear quarter, said he didn't know the steroid was in the ointment and was only doing what the vet told him to. It's right on the box, probably the key ingredient! Oh Bob, ye of little credibility! If Baffert is such a Zeus of training horses . . . do I even have to say it? What about the vet, who should speak up or forever hold his peace?

Baffert's Perry Mason, Scott Robertson, said he didn't want to name the vet, to avoid "the appearance of throwing him under the bus." Seriously.

Scollay again: "If the stewards feel that he had made a legitimate effort to understand the treatments the horse was receiving or they determined the veterinarian did not sufficiently disclose information, they could mitigate penalties, but that doesn't negate the finding." Meaning that although Baffert will Sergeant Schultz it and play dumb, he is responsible for the crime committed and needs to pay a real price.

Industry whore and retail data outlet Daily Racing Form laid a foundation for Baffert's defense with this gem:

"While most members of the general public and the outsized group of racing participants who are suspicious of Baffert will treat the positive as an indication of cheating, many horsemen and regulators will instead place the blame on what they consider endemic problems in how the racing industry handles commonly used medications, including what those critics characterize as poorly researched withdrawal times and thresholds set so low that laboratories catch the presence of regulated drugs well after they could have had any impact on a horse's performance or through accidental contamination."

I don't believe Matt Hegarty really wrote that.

If Baffert hasn't done anything wrong, why does he always seem in flagrante delicto?

In May 2020, Arkansas Derby Day, his horses Charlatan and Gamine tested positive for lidocaine. Baffert's Nordberg in that one was his trusty sidekick Jimmy Barnes. Barnes had been wearing a Salonpas pad for a sore back and the lidocaine got into the horses' system "environmentally." See? Penalty: $10,000, but horses reinstated.

Gamine also tested positive for betamethasone after Placing in the 2020 Kentucky Oaks. Penalty: Baffert $1,500 fine; owner Michael Lund Peterson coughs back $120,000 in purse money, which I hope he tore out of Baffert's butt. Gamine won the Derby City Distaff sprint this past Derby Day.

Baffert's Merneith tested positive for dextromethorphan, a cough medicine, after a race at Del Mar in November. Bobby not only pulled out the groom-taking-cough-medicine environmental gag, he barely paid any price. Penalty: $2,500 fine.

Then there's 2018's Justify, who has been credited with winning the effing Triple Crown. After he won that year's Santa Anita Derby, which he needed to get into Kentucky's Derby, he tested positive for scopolamine, 300 nanograms vs. the accepted 75 nanograms, which is basically used to settle the stomach.

Once again Baffert, declaring that it wasn't a performance enhancer anyway, cried environmental and said he got it from contaminated hay that had jimson weed in it, a source of the substance. In a classic case of clout, coverup and corruption, the California Horse Racing Board, filled with many of Baffert's friends and clients, did not reveal the findings until a day or two before the Derby, filed no official complaints or findings, held no substantive hearings on the matter and dismissed it that August. The horse was never entitled to run in Kentucky.

Another huge stain on Baffert is the dead seven horses. The CHRB cleared him of all liability after seven of his horses dropped dead at Hollywood Park over a 16-month period to March 2013. Five from heart attacks, one from encephalitis and one from rat poison(?). Penalty: Nothing. Although Baffert was nice enough to declare at the time "My focus will continue to be on providing the best care for my horses."

Tests were performed, drugs, included clenbuterol, were found. All seven had been treated with thyroid medication Thyroxine, which Baffert said he used on all of his horses. Legal, but highly unusual to be used on every horse in a barn, investigators said.

Hollywood medical director Dr. Rick Arthur said at the time, "All of these horses have pathological changes that you couldn't do intentionally if you wanted." Oh well.

What about 2015's American Pharaoh? Baffert kept saying "This horse recovers so well!" I know I could see it on TV the next day, and he looked pretty fresh in just about every race. We learned from baseball that recovery was a main incentive to use steroids; 2015 was a long time ago in the willingness and expertise to test racehorses.

We will watch for the nuances of how the betamethasone got into Medina Spirit's system. Even if it wasn't injected, the ointment could have been the problem, treated with it for weeks. In any case, it was there, Mr. Baffert.

We will see what the racing industry is made of, where its priorities are. He needs to be punished in a severe and fair manner. Get him and his barn out of racing for at least two years. Obviously take away Medina Spirit's "win." Think about stripping Justify of his Derby title, and look at Gamine.

He did the crime, now do the time. He's raked in as many spoils as anyone in history. The highest-profile figure in horse racing in the most important race in America, Bob Baffert would not, for any reason, be unfairly made an example of.

He would be treated on par with the example he chose to set.

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Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Jun 9, 2021