Bob Baffert returns to Santa Anita after suspension expires

Coach Bob Baffert woke up at 5 a.m. on Sunday, much earlier than he had in the past 90 days. He wanted to return to a job he has enjoyed and excelled at for more than four decades.

He considered getting up earlier, but passed the idea on.

“I was thinking of getting there at 12:01 am and going to the stables and banging the signs back up,” he said, laughing as he sat in box 227 in the Santa Anita grandstand and watched his horses for the first time after a workout three-month suspension after testing positive for Medina Spirit at last year’s Kentucky Derby.

A handful of people were there to see the familiar mop of white hair. Trainers John Sadler and Tim Yakteen were there as always, as was jockey Mike Smith and a rotating group of well-wishers. Yakteen even brought a box of donuts, which were there when Baffert arrived at around 6:30 a.m. Baffert’s wife Jill came along on his first day at work.

“It feels like the first day of school,” Baffert said.

When he got to his barn, the first person he saw was his longtime assistant, Jimmy Barnes.

“He came over and gave me a really tight hug,” said Baffert, 69. “He said, ‘Thank god you’re back.’ I haven’t spoken to Jimmy since I left. Our whole stable is like a family, I’ve known them all for so long.”

Depending on who you speak to, Baffert is either loved or slandered, with more in the former than the latter category. He was a particular target of animal rights activists with PETA, who were calling for his removal from the Hall of Fame. Because of its fame, it is a particularly valuable target. He’s the only name non-racers know.

It will take a few days for the Baffert stable to return to normal. When he was suspended for 90 days by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which is recognized by all states, the signage on his barn had to be taken down and his office cleared of personal belongings.

“There shouldn’t be any sign of Bob Baffert,” the coach said.

Trainer Bob Baffert watches through binoculars as the horses train at Santa Anita Park on Sunday.

Trainer Bob Baffert watches through binoculars as the horses train at Santa Anita Park on Sunday.

(John Cherwa/Los Angeles Times)

It wasn’t that difficult with the horses, as Baffert transferred most of them to Sean McCarthy, who simply moved into the same space and kept most of Baffert’s staff. McCarthy’s wife, Kim, is Baffert’s office manager, so everyone knew all the players. Four of Baffert’s better horses went to Yakteen, his former assistant, who qualified two of them for the Kentucky Derby and another for the Preakness.

“They did a great job,” Baffert said of his assistant coaches. “They came in and took over. It was hard. I was proud of them for keeping it together. And most of my clients stayed with me.

“I lost some horses. Some owners are still waiting [to see what happens]. I lost [2-year-old Eclipse winner] Corniche,” who moved into Todd Pletcher’s barn. “It hurts. All in all I have a great group of owners. They were in there with me, they know the truth and the facts.”

Truth and facts will ultimately be decided by litigation. Baffert is currently suspended from Churchill Downs until after next year’s Kentucky Derby. He was also banned from racing in New York until January despite not having any infractions in the state in the nearly three decades he has raced there. Pending court cases and hearings abound, including the reinstatement of Medina Spirit as the winner of the Kentucky Derby. The foal was stripped of the title by the KHRC. He died in December of a suspected cardiac event. The autopsy could not definitively determine the cause of death.

The problems began when Baffert was dealing with a series of four drug violations in just over a year. Two were in Arkansas, the result of contamination, something a coach has no control over. One was in California and the other in Kentucky. Baffert had explanations for all of them, but the overall picture was troubling.

Then came the Kentucky Derby, which Baffert won with Longshot Medina Spirit. A week later, news broke that the stallion had tested positive for a legal drug not allowed on race day.

“When they hit me with it, I knew my life was about to change,” Baffert said. “We knew it that day. I was at a point in my life where I had just won my seventh derby and was just driving along. And then this happened.”

Baffert went on the offensive and strenuously denied there could be a failed test. It’s a move he’s now questioning.

“If I had to do something differently, I wouldn’t have held a press conference,” Baffert said. “But it was out there and [the media] was waiting. … I tried to get ahead of it. I was convinced after talking to my vets [the positive] was impossible. Then it dawned on them 48 hours later, be careful with that [ointment] Ottomax.”

John Velazquez rides Medina Spirit across the finish line to win the 147th edition of the Kentucky Derby.

John Velazquez rides Medina Spirit across the finish line to win the 147th edition of the Kentucky Derby in 2021. The horse would later test positive for a legal drug not allowed on race days.

(Associated Press)

Baffert’s legal team has claimed Medina Spirit was treated with an ointment containing betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory, to control a rash on the horse’s hindquarters. The team believes that the rule banning a positive betamethasone test on race day only applies if the drug is injected, the usual use, and not applied in an ointment.

“When they got into the barn to shake her off [as part of the investigation], it was right there in the kids’ brush bucket, but they didn’t see it because they weren’t looking for it,” Baffert said. “I wish they found it because it was right there.”

Baffert’s next miscalculation was when he said on Fox News that he was the victim of “cancel culture,” a politically charged phrase.

“I spoke to someone at Churchill Downs and said they canceled me,” Baffert said. “That’s actually what I meant to say. I should have said it like that. Someone very important, and I won’t say who, said to me, ‘You can think it, but you can’t say it.’ ”

Baffert was eventually handed a 90-day suspension. Typically, a stay of suspension is granted when a coach appeals, which Baffert did. However, the KHRC refused the stay and Baffert had no choice but to accept the suspension.

“I thought he would get through the first half with the derby and other big races,” said Jill Baffert. “But I thought he was going to get restless in the middle, and he did. 45 days is a long time to be away from work and then you realize you have 45 left.”

The trainer said he didn’t see much racing when he was away, in part because he didn’t know when his horses were running.

“My phone was silent, nobody called me,” said Bob Baffert. “It was all down to Sean, Jimmy and Tim. We watched a race every once in a while, but not usually too much. I just didn’t let the situation upset me. … It would be best if I just stopped by.”

His wife took on the role of “bobby-sitting,” as she calls it.

“He’s a half-full guy,” said Jill Baffert. “And that has contributed to his success in racing. He’s a very optimistic person. There were times [these past months] where I was frustrated, irritated and hurt. He lifted me up in so many ways.”

Jockey Mike Smith talks to Bob and Jill Baffert after guiding Justify to victory at the 2018 143rd Preakness Stakes.

Jockey Mike Smith talks to Bob and Jill Baffert after guiding Justify to victory at the 2018 143rd Preakness Stakes.

(Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Bob Baffert made the most of his absence. He spent the time around the Kentucky Derby in Arizona visiting his brother and some owners. He watched the Belmont Stakes at Chileno Bay in Cabo San Lucas, where he took his entire family for six days.

“We were in a club [at the resort] and no one knew who I was,” Baffert said. “And then my picture came on TV and people looked around and said, ‘Is that you? Yes I am.’ ”

He also participated in some sales in Florida and spent his time before the end of the suspension in Tennessee visiting his wife’s family. He connected a trip to Kentucky, where he believed an appeal hearing on Medina Spirit would take place. But it was postponed to August 22nd.

“After the hearing was postponed, we went and checked [Triple Crown winners] American Pharoah and Justify,” Baffert said. “We went to Old Friends [retirement farm] and watched Silver Charm and Game on Dude. It was very nice. You are doing a fantastic job. We even saw Pharaoh’s mother.”

He also visited Medina Spirit’s tomb, where his wife laid a wreath of flowers.

Baffert is likely to return to racing next week in Los Alamitos. He keeps about 40 horses in Santa Anita and another 45 in Los Alamitos, mostly younger horses. Then he moves to Del Mar for the summer meeting.

Baffert says he’s looking forward, not backward.

“This game will make you bitter if you let it,” he said. “You get beat, you take the loss and just move on. There’s water under the bridge and you mustn’t let it bother you. We fought the good fight, but we didn’t win.

“We’ll be coming back.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2022-07-03/bob-baffert-returns-to-santa-anita-park-after-suspension Bob Baffert returns to Santa Anita after suspension expires

Emma Bowman

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