By Barry Irwin,
The Bob Baffert “case” — the collection of errors committed or allowed to happen under the trainer’s watch — is extremely important to the survival of horse racing in the United States. Why? Because for the first time in memory, a well-connected actor in the Turf Sport found himself unable to manipulate a get-out-of-jail-free card to exploit the system.
Historically any number of high-profile individuals over the years have used their friends in high places to wriggle off the hook and avoid major penalties, suspensions or fines as a result of having broken the rules.
In racing the given is that well-connected individuals will never have to suffer the indignities foisted on horsemen that have not cultivated important relationships among stewards, racetrack owners, racing commissioners, leaders of horse racing organizations, veterinarians in strategic positions and wealthy political donors in order to ensure that someday, when a favor is needed, it will be there for them.
I will freely admit that I never thought Baffert would be anywhere near the trouble he got himself into. I thought he was too smart, cunning and methodical. And, if caught, I never thought his web of friends in high places would fail to keep him from being subjected to the penalties others have had to deal with.
My take on the Baffert dust-up is that the rules he was penalized for breaking were Mickey Mouse minor violations, none of which individually would have gotten him in the hot water he is in now. We all have our opinions of what Baffert may or may not have done, but my guess is that if Baffert had been caught engaging in other, more serious activities it would have landed him in far greater trouble and with a considerably lengthier ban.
But where Baffert went wrong was that his arrogance, borne out of years of racing officials allowing him to slip off the hook, caused him to be sloppy. And it is just that sloppiness in total — the whole mess of minor offenses over a relatively short period of time — that created enough of a negative picture of the white-haired Arizonan to make him vulnerable.
And then, to make matters critically worse, Baffert went and poked the bear. He messed with the brand of the most important entity in horse racing in North America—the Kentucky Derby—run under the historic Twin Spires at Churchill Downs.
Baffert wrongly assumed, for once, that because of his impact on the Run for the Roses and the Triple Crown he was bigger than the game. He reckoned that he was too important for higher-ups in racing, especially in Kentucky, to lay a hand on him. Well sports fans, he found out differently when Churchill Downs banned him for two years and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission issued Baffert a 90-day suspension, then denied him a stay while he appealed it.
Getting back to the original question, why is the Baffert thing so important, especially at this time? Because racing is going through an unofficial trial, if you will, and the jury is the American sporting public, supported strongly by animal lovers and admirers of fair play in athletic contests.
These public factions, a loosely cobbled group that conducts personal evaluations after watching evidence unfold in the media (both traditional and social), has pretty much had enough of Baffert and his antics. They have found him guilty and they want to make sure that justice is served. If they do not feel that adequate justice is delivered in favor of the animal, rival contestants, horseplayers and fans, they will write off the game as rigged and simply not worth playing or watching any longer.
Along with other like-minded participants in different positions of the racing industry I have fought long and hard to create a level playing field. As one of those in the forefront of pushing for the federal legislation that led Congress to create the group now known as HISA (Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority), I for one realize the importance of holding someone like Baffert to account for his misdeeds. For my part, I consider the most essential aspect in the creation of HISA is to have a body that will uphold the integrity of our sport no matter how well-connected or powerful an individual may be.
It is a testament to the importance of the concept of the Kentucky Derby and what it stands for, both in and out of racing, that even before HISA took hold, somebody in the industry showed the public that the current leaders of the Sport of Kings placed sport and the well-being of the horse above the most powerful trainer in the modern history of North American racing.
When HISA is fully up and running, we in racing should be able to count on the actions that led to Baffert’s ban and suspension becoming commonplace.