June 21, 2024

Kentucky Derby 150, just like 149 and 148, will be run without trainer Bob Baffert, the most recognizable name in the sport, even to those who don’t follow it. And, for the first time, none of his horses were moved to other trainers, meaning the race won’t have all the best horses in it.

The overwhelming number of people who attend the Derby are not there to see a great horse race but attend an epic party with hats. But to those who do care about the racing, the sentiment of who is the villain and who is the victim may be shifting in the now three-year fight between Baffert and Churchill Downs.

“It’s very split, you’ve got half the people who say keep the ‘cheater’ out, we don’t want him,” said Louis Rabaut, host of Rabaut & Co. on ESPN Louisville radio and co-host of the Horse Racing Happy Hour. “The other half is, ‘We want the best horses here.’ It’s been long enough.

“Obviously it’s not the issues they are talking about anymore. I’m thinking last year it was about 80% that we’re glad he’s not here but this year it’s 50-50, that’s a big shift.”

The issues date to 2021 when the Baffert-trained Medina Spirit tested positive for a medication generally legal but not allowed on race day. When the positive test was revealed, Baffert initially disputed it in the strongest terms only to reverse course a few days later and say the drug, betamethasone, was administered through an ointment to treat a rash.

Churchill Downs issued what was believed to be a two-year ban of Baffert to all Churchill Downs Inc., or CDI, tracks, which also include Turfway Park and Fair Grounds. What was mostly overlooked was the phrase “at least” before “two-year ban.”

Despite no violations and serving a 90-day suspension by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, Baffert was handed a third year of punishment with no promise it won’t be extended. In litigation filed last month, Churchill made it clear the year was added because Baffert had not taken responsibility for the medication or expressed regret.

Think about sending your child to their room and telling them not to come out until they were ready to accept responsibility. That would be Churchill’s stand. Baffert’s stand is that he’s served his time and should be let out of the dog house. Plus, he contends he didn’t do anything wrong.

Baffert declined an interview request for this story.

Churchill Downs did not respond to messages for comment.

“I definitely think it’s moving in one direction or the other but not in favor of Bob or CDI,” said Ed DeRosa, vice president of product development for the website Horse Racing Nation and a recent CDI employee. “I think people just want to move on. I don’t think anyone is all of a sudden exonerating Bob Baffert, but I do think the patience is wearing a little thin to adding on to the punishment.

“The Racing Commission also punished him and he served that. But CDI added to the ban after two years with a third year. I do think it was completely personal.”

Going by the usual Breeders’ Cup rotation, Churchill Downs was expected to host the 2025 event. When the Breeders’ Cup is held, the track is essentially rented and the Breeders’ Cup is in charge of all things not covered by state regulatory agencies.

According to four people with knowledge of the situation but not authorized to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the issue, there was no signed agreement but planning for the event was underway. However, Churchill insisted for the deal to go through that if Baffert was still banned by CDI he would not be able to participate in the Breeders’ Cup. Both sides saw it as an issue that could not be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

But there is a cost to the impasse. The 2022 Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland was said to have brought $81 million in economic impact to Kentucky. Next year, those dollars will go to Del Mar, which will host for the second straight year and California, hosting for the third consecutive year.

Horse racing is a data-driven sport and there are some numbers that show that Baffert is not the pariah detractors would like to paint him as.

Meltwater Media, one the country’s top monitoring services by scanning social media and traditional media, broke it down this way.

Last month, Baffert had a 24.6% positivity rating and a 24% negativity number, while 51% were neutral.

However, over the last seven days, with eyes starting to point to the Derby, Baffert has a 39.6% positive rating and 15.8% negative, with 44.5% neutral.

Tim Sullivan, the former longtime sports columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal and frequent Baffert critic, thinks this battle of wills should be nearing its end.

“To a lot of people, Baffert is not a victim yet,” Sullivan said. “I think if they added a fourth year that might change. I think there hasn’t been a recent justification for [extending the ban], I think [Baffert’s] recent statements looked to me like an olive branch. I think [Churchill] has proven their point.

“Given all the fatalities last year and then to appear to stand for integrity, while admittedly the virtues might have been politically wise, it’s time to put an end to this and I think they know that.”

Sullivan will not go so far as to say he detects a swell of affection for Baffert.

“I think when Churchill added a third year there was a sense that they were piling on,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think Bob Baffert is seen in any more positive a light than he was three years ago, but I think Churchill is seen as being a little vindicative.”

The Baffert-CDI battle has been noticed by more than people who intensely follow the sport.

“You hear about it a little,” said Gov. Andy Beshear (D-Ky.) in an exclusive interview with The Times. “Kentuckians are so supportive of the Derby and they know what it means to the state.

“I believe through the court system it has been resolved. It’s just now serving out the time period of the suspension. Bob Baffert withdrew his last appeal and so I believe that the suspension and the length of it is now definite.

“Once that is over then he’ll have an opportunity to participate again. I’ve gotten the chance not to know him, but to meet him several times, and I’m sure he’ll be back. He certainly wants to be back. At the same time, you’ve got rules and you’ve got to enforce them.”

But is the length of the suspension really definite? If Churchill knows, it isn’t saying.

“If this were another sport, some enterprising sportsbook would word the question, ‘What year will Bob Baffert have his next Kentucky Derby start?’” DeRosa said. “’Never’ would have to be on the board. I’m not saying it’s the favorite but it’s on the table.

“They might decide he’s back for next year but if something goes wrong, I’m sure there is an itchy finger. I would make the favorite that he’s in the 2025 Derby. I think of all the possible outcomes that is the most likely, but if you are talking about another year or two years, a lifetime ban is on the table as well.”

The consensus pick, however, is that racing is ready to move on from this.

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