Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who is banned from the Kentucky Derby, is on a mission to restore two legacies – his own and that of Medina Spirit, who was stripped of the 2021 victory after testing positive for an anti-inflammatory medication following the race.
“I haven’t had a chance to tell the story,” Baffert told ESPN’s Marty Smith in an interview at his California home. “I’ve been waiting. We’ve been going through all the processes. I never got my due process with Churchill Downs.”
Baffert, a six-time winner of the Kentucky Derby who has saddled 34 horses in the famed race, will not be in attendance Saturday for the 148th running. He is also banned from competing for the other two jewels of the Triple Crown – the Preakness on May 21 and the Belmont Stakes on June 11.
Medina Spirit tested positive for betamethasone after last year’s victory and was disqualified from that win in a ruling handed down this year. The anti-inflammatory medication is allowed in Kentucky, but it must clear a horse’s system at least 14 days before a race. It’s considered a Class C drug, with a lesser potential to influence performance, but any level of detection on race day is a violation.
As a result, Churchill Downs Inc. barred Baffert from entering horses at any of its tracks for this year and through mid-2023. The 38 US racing states operate on a system of reciprocity, meaning if an owner, trainer or jockey is banned in one state, the others will honor that.
“Who would’ve thought an ointment – an ointment – took down the Kentucky Derby winner,” Baffert told ESPN. “That’s just not right. And that’s something that we’re going to, you know, we’re gonna fight vigorously to save that horse’s Kentucky Derby, because he … deserved the win.”
Baffert, 69, is suing Churchill Downs Inc. in federal court to end his suspension. He has failed in multiple attempts in Kentucky to overturn the track’s ban or the start of his 90-day suspension by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which began April 4.
When asked directly if he knowingly cheated, Baffert vehemently denied it to ESPN: “No.”
“It killed me when they made a big deal taking [Medina Spirit’s] name off, in the paddock, “Baffert said.” And they took my signs down at the barn. It’s tough to see that, but you know what, at the end of the day, when the facts come out … it tells a different story.
“That day will come. Yeah.”
Medina Spirit died on Dec. 6 from what Baffert said was a heart attack after a workout. A necropsy failed to pinpoint the cause.
“I think the main thing is to save the legacy of Medina Spirit. That’s what I’m fighting for,” Baffert told ESPN. “And I want to fight for the sport. The legacy of the sport. The sport is a great sport. It’s on the up and up. I think it’s cleaner now than it ever has been.
“I just think that people are getting the wrong information, and the word needs to get out there.”
Last week, a hearing officer recommended a two-year suspension for Baffert in New York for repeated medication violations involving his horses that occurred in other states. If it’s approved by a New York Racing Association panel, Baffert plans to contest the ruling, which could keep him from entering horses at Saratoga in upstate New York when its summer season begins July 14.
Baffert, who has won seven Preaknesses and three Belmonts in addition to his six victories in horse racing’s marquee event, told ESPN that the ointment used on Medina Spirit had “zero impact” on his performance – “and you won’t find a scientist that will tell you [that it did].
“People were getting wrong information, and this was going on so fast,” Baffert added. “Everybody just ran with a false narrative. Just ran. They’re still running with a false narrative. And it takes a while to change that, especially, you know, the biased reporting against me. … I’m still dealing. with that. But in time, like I said, when we get to a neutral, fair … we just need someone with common sense, fairness to listen to this – and we have the facts, tests. We have everything. It’s all there. “
For now, Baffert told ESPN that he’s taking time for himself while “dealing” with the suspension.
“I’m actually taking this time to train myself, trying to get myself fit, worried about my health, because everybody was worried about me,” Baffert said, noting he has no plans to retire. “I’m spending time with my family, my kids, and, you know, take a trip or two. I’ve never taken vacations and I’ve never been away from my horses this long.”
As the horses enter the starting gate Saturday, Baffert will be “laying low” and pulling for two of those that were in his barn – Messier (8-1 odds) and Taiba (12-1) – and are now being trained by Tim Yakteen, a former assistant under Baffert who has run his own stable for 18 years.
“Of course, I’m gonna watch the Kentucky Derby,” said Baffert, who can return to racing when his 90-day suspension ends July 2.
“… I still have a lot of fire in me. I enjoy what I do. I love what I do.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.