To Bob Baffert, there’s no better place than one he has visited a record seven times — the place where the Kentucky Derby winner gets adorned with roses and sport proclaims the horse and humans as heroes.
“If there’s a heaven it’s in that (Churchill Downs) winner’s circle,” he told CNN in 2019. “That’s the most expensive piece of real estate in the world. It costs so much money to get into that small patch of grass but it’s worth every penny of it.”
But two weeks after spending a glorious evening in that winner’s circle, the Hall of Fame thoroughbred trainer is dogged by questions following a positive drugs test in his most recent winner.
Medina Spirit, who was a 12-to-1 favorite at post time for the Derby, had betamethasone — an anti-inflammatory corticosteroid sometimes used to relieve joint pain — in a blood sample. Kentucky horse racing rules don’t allow that and tell trainers to stop using the therapeutic 14 days before an event.
The test result cast an unwelcome spotlight on the Hall of Fame trainer who has had a handful of horses fail drug tests in the past year.
One horse, a filly named Gamine, tested positive for betamethasone in Kentucky last year. An attorney for Baffert, W. Craig Robertson III, sent CNN a statement this week saying the trainer and his team acknowledged giving the horse the drug but did so before the 14-day withdrawal window.
“The vet gave it 18 days out from the race — adding an additional four day layers of safety — to make sure it cleared the horse’s system,” Robertson said. “However, for whatever reason, it did not clear Gamine’s system.”
Robinson said after the Gamine experience, the Baffert barn decided not to use the betamethasone.
“That’s why this result was particularly shocking because we had specifically made a decision not to use that particular anti-inflammatory,” he said.
Baffert said this week that in April an ointment used to treat Medina Spirit’s dermatitis contained the steroid.
“While we do not know definitively that this was the source of the alleged (amounts of the steroid) found in Medina Spirit’s postrace blood sample, and our investigation is continuing, I have been told by equine pharmacology experts that this could explain the test results,” Baffert said.
In the past year, Baffert had four horses fail drug tests, including Medina Spirit and Gamine (which actually failed two).
Baffert was suspended for suspended 15 days by the Arkansas Racing Commission due to Gamine and another horse failing tests because they had lidocaine in their systems, but last month the suspension was overturned, and the results were reinstated.
In Medina Spirit’s case, the horse is still listed as the Derby winner, and if the colt wins the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes on June 5, it will win Baffert his third thoroughbred Triple Crown.
After a close loss at his first Derby, Baffert was crushed
It’s been an amazing journey for the man who grew to love horses at a young age and came to seek the allure of the Triple Crown.
The first time Bob Baffert, now 68, took a horse to the Kentucky Derby, in 1996, his thoroughbred Cavonnier looked like a winner only to be beaten to the finish line by the nose of Grindstone. It took a photo to see which horse won.
“I thought (Cavonnier) won, but he got caught and got beat an inch in the end,” Baffert said two years ago. “It was a devastating loss. I just thought I’d blown my shot. For a year I was sort of depressed about it.”
He hadn’t blown his shot.
He won with Silver Charm the next year and Real Quiet the year after that.
Baffert has trained the winners of 17 Triple Crown races and four Breeders’ Cup Classics. Four times he has been named thoroughbred racing’s trainer of the year.
Two legendary horses — American Pharoah and Justify — won Baffert his Triple Crown awards. (Justify’s Derby qualifier win was called into question by the New York Times but California racing officials found no violations)
Only two trainers have won more purse money than him. He has saddled more than 3,000 winners in his four-decade career.
Started on an Arizona ranch
Baffert grew up in the 1950s and 60s on a cattle ranch in Nogales, Arizona, on the border with Mexico.
“I wanted to be a horse trainer against my mother’s will,” he told CNN two years ago. “She said, ‘How can you make living being a horse trainer in Arizona?’
“I just love being around horses. Once it gets in your blood, the passion, you can’t get out.”
Baffert and his father would take their cattle to shows in the region. Later they began to training quarter horses — American-bred horses known for their tremendous speed over a quarter mile — for races.
Baffert would sometimes race his horses in non-sanctioned meets around Nogales, then compete in some official races. But he outgrew the ability to take to the saddle.
“I was too big, I ate myself out of a job,” Baffert said.
After studying animal sciences in college in the early 1970s, he came home to train horses with his father.
He thought his progress was slow.
“I was really disgusted with it,” he said, referring to his development as a trainer.
Success began at California track
A short stint as a teacher didn’t work out either, so he returned to the tracks, training some horses for a friend.
“I decided to give it one more go,” he said. “I started winning and the next thing you know I’ve got five, 10, 15 horses and then I was going.”
In 1983, Baffert moved to California to train his nine best horses at the famous Los Alamitos quarter-horse track near Los Angeles.
“I was very intimidated because I knew how tough it was,” he said.
He told a friend that if the first race results weren’t good, he would head back to Arizona.
His first day, with three horses competing, he had one win and two thirds.
In the late 1980s, Baffert switched to training thoroughbreds, with dreams of going to the Kentucky Derby.
For Baffert, training race horses isn’t really work.
“Trainers go to sleep thinking about our horses and we wake up thinking about our horses,” he says.
“That’s the beauty of it. We are working outdoors with these magnificent animals. It’s the greatest therapy you can have. Whenever you’re feeling down or depressed I just go to the barn and hang out with them.
“I’m so lucky that I found something I totally love.”