Call him “Bulletproof Bob.” Or perhaps “Teflon Bob.”
You can call him anything you like, but there is no denying that Bob Baffert came out smelling like a rose last week after an exhaustive, and exhausting, 14-hour hearing by the Arkansas Racing Commission.
Baffert was facing a 15-day suspension, and the sport was courting a major embarrassment if its most recognizable figure was barred from the Kentucky Derby (G1). Imagine explaining the ban on network television to the casual fans who watch only one horserace each year.
Not to worry. Baffert will be back at Churchill Downs with Medina Spirit, looking for a record -breaking seventh Derby training victory. Baffert and Ben Jones currently hold the mark with six victories.
Another garland of roses would give Baffert back-to-back Derbys following Authentic’s victory last year. No trainer has pulled off a Derby double since Baffert did it with Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998).
Baffert’s Arkansas woes dated back to last year at Oaklawn Park when two of his horses, Charlatan and Gamine, were disqualified from victories when lidocaine was detected in both horses’ post-race samples.
Lidocaine is commonly used to numb pain in horses and humans and is available without prescription in any pharmacy.
Over two days, the ARC heard testimony covering even the most minute details of testing procedures. Baffert’s defense team sought to discredit the chain of possession of the samples, suggesting they could have been tainted. They also sought to discredit the testing labs.
In the end, the ARC ruled that the level of lidocaine detected was not performance enhancing and bought Baffert’s argument that the positives were triggered by accidental contamination.
Baffert was not at Oaklawn when the positives happened. Long-time assistant Jimmy Barnes, who was using a lidocaine patch to treat a back injury, was in charge.
Baffert was on the hook due to the “absolute insurer rule” that holds trainers of record responsible for anything that happens to horses in their care.
The commissioners unanimously voted at the conclusion of the two-day hearing to overrule the disqualifications handed down by the stewards and restored the victories to Charlatan in a division of the Arkansas Derby (G1) and Gamine in an allowance race.
Baffert didn’t escape completely scot-free. He was fined $5,000 for each of the positives. In the bigger picture, it was a small price to pay to bury an embarrassing episode for the silver-haired trainer and for the sport as it heads into the most important week of the year.
The bright lights pierced the gloom on a drizzly Saturday night in Louisville as Churchill Downs kicked off the spring meet and launched the final countdown to Derby Day.
Field Day broke poorly but recovered to take the opening feature, the William Walker Stakes. Fittingly, the trainer of meet’s first stakes winner was Brad Cox who has entered a zone he never experienced before.
This is not the first rodeo for Cox who captured four Breeders’ Cup stakes last November. But it is his first Derby, and he can’t avoid the glare of the spotlight as the conditioner of Essential Quality, the undefeated heavy favorite to win the Derby.
While Baffert is an old hand at handling the Derby scene, Cox will be front and center for the first time. He comes into the spot holding a strong hand with both Essential Quality and Risen Star (G2) winner Mandaloun.
Cox also had Caddo River under Derby consideration until announcing Sunday morning that the horse wasn’t quite right.
“We noticed he was off his feed and took his temperature yesterday afternoon. It was slightly elevated,” Cox said. “It’s just really bad timing being this close to the Derby. We drew blood on him Sunday morning and his white cell counts were a little high. We just can’t run him on Saturday with being a little off his game.”
With Caddo River out of the picture, Brooklyn Strong moves into the 20th and final spot in the Derby field. The Remsen (G2) winner will work Monday morning at Parx and, if all goes well, will arrive at Churchill Downs on Tuesday.
In other Sunday Derby developments: trainer Todd Pletcher announced that Corey Lanerie would have the Derby mount on Sainthood. Lanerie has ridden in the Derby four times previously with his best finish a second on Lookin At Lee in 2017.
Two prominent Derby hopefuls, Rock Your World and Hot Rod Charlie, arrived at Churchill Downs shortly after noon following a flight from Southern California.
The Derby draw takes place Tuesday and will be streamed live on www.KentuckyDerby.com from 10:45-11:45 a.m. and televised live by FS2 nationally from 11 a.m.-12 p.m. (ET).