Baffert loses fight for injunction against Churchill Downs

Baffert loses fight for injunction against Churchill Downs
Photo: Ron Flatter

Bob Baffert lost an important court fight to try and get into Kentucky Derby 2023 when his motion for a preliminary injunction against Churchill Downs Inc. was denied Friday by a federal judge in Louisville, Ky.

Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings also threw out most of the trainer’s lawsuit against CDI, offering only limited agreement with Baffert on one point in his long, legal fight to clear his name and restore the late Medina Spirit as the winner of the 2021 Derby despite a failed, post-race drug test.

Baffert, Medina Spirit’s owner Amr Zedan and their legal team still could go to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Asked directly Friday night if he would, lead attorney Clark Brewster told Horse Racing Nation, “Of course.”

Earlier in a phone message, Brewster said, “We certainly will carefully read the rulings and take a very careful approach to finding our next legal course.”

Baffert did not immediately respond to a text message and phone call asking for his reaction.

“Churchill Downs is pleased that the court denied Mr. Baffert’s demand for a preliminary injunction and granted our motion to dismiss on all but one claim, and on that claim the court held that Mr. Baffert did not establish a likelihood of success on the merits,” a CDI spokesperson said in a written statement Friday afternoon. “Today’s opinion is a victory for the integrity of horse racing, and we will continue to take action to protect the safety of our human and equine athletes.”

Grady Jennings, who also refused Brewster’s call to step down from the case over a claim of a conflict of interest, did agree with Baffert’s team on one of its six reasons not to dismiss its case. She said CDI could be considered a “state actor” bound by an obligation to provide Baffert “a prompt, post-suspension hearing” that never happened.

However, the judge said that only applied to Baffert’s ability to be licensed as a racehorse trainer in Kentucky. She stopped short of giving him what he really needed to get his horses into the May 6 race at Churchill Downs.

“Plaintiffs (Baffert’s side) have failed to carry their burden to demonstrate that the court should impose a preliminary injunction against CDI’s suspension,” Grady Jennings wrote in her rulings posted Friday afternoon. “Accordingly, plaintiffs’ renewed motion for a preliminary injunction is denied.”

Grady Jennings said Baffert’s side failed to prove the four points needed to get that injunction that would have set aside a two-year suspension that ends this summer. They included showing damage from the loss of purse money, the likelihood of a legal victory over a lack of due process, that public interests would be served and that CDI would not have been harmed by the injunction.

“Trainers have already earned points towards the 2023 Kentucky Derby,” Grady Jennings wrote about that last point. “If (Baffert’s) horses are allowed to race, then they would necessarily exclude those who would have otherwise qualified. ... The Court finds that CDI and innocent third parties who have already earned points would be substantially harmed if the court imposed an injunction. Therefore, the substantial harm factor weighs against injunctive relief.”

Baffert took CDI to court this month for what turned into a two-day, seven-hour hearing. Many of the same arguments were repeated from previous court cases and stewards reviews in both Kentucky and New York. All this stemmed from the drug test the late Medina Spirit failed after he finished first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

Baffert and Zedan have insisted the betamethasone that turned up in the test was legal, because it came from a skin cream and not through an injection, and that it was applied before the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s recommendation for how long it took to get out of the horse’s system. CDI and the KHRC said it did not matter how the betamethasone showed up, that it still was illegal.

The new wrinkle in this case was the argument by Brewster that even though CDI is not a state agency, its license for exclusive dates in Kentucky limited Baffert’s options to go elsewhere. CDI said if licensees were held to the same standard as state agencies, that could unravel free enterprise.

Grady Jennings agreed with Baffert and Brewster – but only to a point.

“Because plaintiffs have alleged facts to support the first the elements of a due-process violation, a ‘prompt post-suspension hearing’ was required. ... (CDI has) not asserted that plaintiffs were given a hearing prior to CDI’s suspension. ... Based on the foregoing, plaintiffs have alleged facts sufficient to state a claim for a violation of Baffert’s due-process rights only as they relate to his trainer’s license.”

Friday’s rulings also kept a Feb. 28 deadline in place for Baffert to transfer horses to other trainers in order to make them eligible for the Derby on May 6. That deadline was added to this year’s rules for Triple Crown nominations.

“Certainly we can ask the circuit (court) to take a look at any of the decisions,” Brewster told HRN on Friday night. “It’s getting very close to the Derby and the conditions that Churchill has unilaterally dictated with regard to eligibility. The question now is whether that’s viable or if it becomes, instead of an injunction case, a damage case.”

Brewster was involved in an unrelated case in federal court in Wisconsin when he heard about Grady Jennings’s rulings. On his way Friday night to a flight from Chicago to his Tulsa, Okla., home, he was asked when he might file Baffert’s appeal.

“Monday is a federal holiday,” Brewster said. “I’ll be back up here in a Wisconsin federal court hearing Tuesday. But it’ll be prompt, and it will be timely.”

Last spring, when Baffert was serving a 90-day KHRC suspension that came with the disqualification of Medina Spirit, he temporarily transferred Taiba and Messier to Tim Yakteen in April so they could run in both the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and the Kentucky Derby.

This year Baffert has five of the top 10 betting choices in Las Vegas futures for the Derby. They include the consensus favorite Arabian Knight, who won last month’s Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn.

Grady Jennings rejected a call to step down from the case over the claim she had a conflict of interest. Brewster said it was because she is married to Patrick Jennings, a lobbyist for The Jockey Club. Brewster maintained that organization had been working against Baffert in this case. In short, the judge said Brewster waited too long to make this claim.

“Plaintiffs had an obligation to bring any legitimate motion to recuse approximately one year ago,” she wrote, pointing out that her husband’s lobbying interests were readily available online. She also said The Jockey Club and 1/ST Racing, another one of her husband’s clients mentioned by Brewster, were not parties in this case.

Saying she “takes seriously the motion to disqualify,” Grady Jennings concluded, “Neither I nor any member of my family has any financial interest in any of the parties or the outcome of this litigation. And, after a deep search of the law and review of all briefings, I have found no statutory or other reason for disqualification in the case before the court and cannot recuse.”

Baffert’s appeal to restore Medina Spirit as the 2021 Kentucky Derby winner returns to a Frankfort, Ky., hearing room March 1. A recommendation from a new officer in that case will go to the KHRC board for its eventual acceptance or rejection.

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