Controversy in Horse Racing: A Race to Lift a Suspension
The crown jewels of American thoroughbred horseracing are the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. Together, they are known as the “Triple Crown,” and winning all three in a single year—an immensely difficult feat—is the pinnacle of horseracing in the United States.
Robert Baffert, a seven-time Kentucky Derby winner, is one of only a few racehorse trainers who have won the Triple Crown, and one of only two trainers to have two horses win the Triple Crown. Recently, however, Mr. Baffert has made headlines not for the success of his thoroughbreds, but for controversy surrounding them.
On May 1, 2021, Medina Spirit, a horse trained by Mr. Baffert, won the Kentucky Derby. Following the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit tested positive for an elevated level of the steroid betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory drug. As a result of the investigation in Kentucky, on May 17, 2021, the New York Racing Association (“NYRA”), which controls thoroughbred racing at state-owned racetracks in New York, announced that Mr. Baffert was “immediately” and “temporarily suspended from entering horses” or using stall space at any NYRA racetrack. In reaching its decision, the NYRA determined it necessary to “protect the integrity of the sport” and took into account that other horses trained by Mr. Baffert had failed drug tests in the past.
Mr. Baffert’s suspension is currently indefinite, and the final length and terms will be determined by the results of the ongoing investigation in Kentucky. Because the Belmont Stakes are held in New York, Mr. Baffert was disqualified from entering a horse into the third leg of the coveted Triple Crown.
Mr. Baffert has elected to fight the suspension, and on May 14, 2021, he filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the suspension, captioned Bob Baffert v. The New York Racing Association, Inc., Case No. 1:21-cv-03329, United States District Court of the Eastern District of New York.
The gravamen of the lawsuit is that the NYRA lacked authority to suspend Mr. Baffert. Specifically, Mr. Baffert argues that the NYRA’s suspension is tantamount to a formal suspension or revocation of the occupational license granted to him by the New York State Gaming Commission. By indefinitely suspending Mr. Baffert from all NYRA racetracks, the NYRA has “essentially barred Baffert from exercising his professional and State-issued trainer’s license anywhere in the State of New York.” Mr. Baffert claims that the power to suspend or revoke a license rests solely with the Gaming Commission, not the NYRA, pursuant to New York statutory law. Moreover, Mr. Baffert alleges that the suspension was issued without any notice or hearing, violating due process under both New York State law and the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.
Concurrent with the lawsuit, Mr. Baffert also filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction, seeking an Order from the Court that would, in effect, lift the NYRA’s suspension and allow Mr. Baffert to participate and enter horses at NYRA racetracks during the pendency of the lawsuit. To obtain the injunction, Mr. Baffert must show that he will suffer irreparable harm, that he has a likelihood of success on the merits of his legal claims (or, if it is uncertain as to whether he is likely to prevail, that the costs outweigh the benefits of not granting the injunction), and that an injunction is in the public interest.
A hearing on the Motion for Preliminary Injunction is scheduled for July 12, 2021.