Will Todd Get ‘The Baffert Treatment’? - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Will Todd Get ‘The Baffert Treatment’?

Trainer Todd Pletcher

With each news story about another therapeutic medication positive for trainer Todd Pletcher in recent weeks, racing fans have asked a question that's likely uncomfortable for racetracks – when will Todd get the Bob Baffert treatment?

Read our previous reporting on the legal history of racetracks and exclusion here.

As of this week, Pletcher has racked up six medication violations in less than a year, though many of them have only recently been made public. There was the much-publicized disqualification of Forte from last year's G1 Hopeful Stakes for an overage of meloxicam. That race was in September but before that, Pletcher runner Capensis was found to have an elevated phenylbutazone level after an allowance race at Saratoga in July 2022. In September, Mind Control won the Parx Dirt Mile but is alleged to have tested positive for an unidentified substance afterwards.

After races held at Gulfstream on Dec. 10, two Pletcher horses tested positive in Florida – one for omeprazole and one for dexamethasone. A third horse picked up a stacking violation in Florida for levels of ketoprofen and phenylbutazone after a Feb. 3 race.

To many people, that doesn't sound so dissimilar from the case of Baffert, who was much scrutinized in the aftermath of Medina Spirit's positive test from the 2021 Kentucky Derby for having had seven drug violations in 21 months. Baffert's therapeutic medication violation history was cited by both Churchill Downs Inc. in their decision to ban him from the Kentucky Derby for two years and by the New York Racing Association in their decision to deny him stalls and entries for one year. Baffert fought to have both bans dropped and was ultimately unsuccessful. His appeal of the stewards' disqualification of Medina Spirit from the 2021 Kentucky Derby is ongoing.

There are a few key differences between the Pletcher situation and Baffert's. For one thing, several of Baffert's violations were in high-profile races. The disqualification of Charlatan from the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby for a lidocaine positive was ultimately reversed, but carried significant weight since it had an impact on Kentucky Derby qualifying points. Then, Gamine tested positive for the corticosteroid betamethasone after the rescheduled 2020 Kentucky Oaks, after Baffert said the filly received injections of the medication into both hocks outside the prescribed withdrawal window.

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The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has pointed out that Medina Spirit's positive for betamethasone falling after Gamine's in the same jurisdiction under the same regulations negates any argument that Baffert was unaware of what the rules may be regarding that drug. (Baffert's attorneys have claimed that the origin of the drug in Medina Spirit was a topical cream and that it therefore shouldn't count per Kentucky's rules.)

For his part, Pletcher's recent drug offenses haven't been repeats, other than the commonly-used phenylbutazone (though we still don't know what the substance of concern may be in Pennsylvania). He hasn't made the same mistake in the same jurisdiction, and neither the Hopeful nor the Parx Dirt Mile can be said to carry the same weight as the Kentucky Derby or Kentucky Oaks.

Baffert went on a tour of mainstream media in the days after he announced Medina Spirit's betamethasone positive, and some of his remarks needled Churchill Downs. Baffert's shifting public story and invocation of “cancel culture” as the reason for what he considered mistreatment was an aggravating factor for the racing commission and both racetracks. Pletcher, by contrast, has had little to say publicly about the therapeutic overages, and those have gone mostly undetected by mainstream media.

It's also true that while all substances for both trainers are therapeutic drugs that are considered to have legitimate purpose in the horse, corticosteroids and anesthetics do have stricter withdrawal times regarding their use in relationship to a race, for fear they could have a greater impact on a pre-race veterinary exam. One of Pletcher's positives was for a corticosteroid, while Baffert had two, plus two for lidocaine, which can be used as a local anesthetic or nerve block (although he attributed its presence to contamination from human use of an over-the-counter pain patch).

The timing and location of the violations also probably makes a difference in how they are handled. Pletcher's most recent violations were in Florida, and while the February overage was his sixth, it's likely that Florida tracks didn't find that out until trade press reported on the accumulation this month. Likewise, Pennsylvania officials probably didn't know about his New York positives last fall, because the New York cases were only recently adjudicated and had rulings published. Stewards in Pennsylvania and Florida haven't made initial decisions on his positives there, and he's appealing the rulings against him in New York, so none of these cases are final.

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The timing of Baffert's civil cases fighting racetrack exclusion decisions meant that stewards had issued rulings in all his positives at the time judges had to make decisions about whether racetracks were right to exclude him. Even if he was still appealing one or more of those stewards' rulings, the tracks could at least say that those rulings existed.

Is all of that splitting hairs? Perhaps the differences are minute and shouldn't shield Pletcher from private track exclusion while Baffert got pushed out. Or perhaps they're a lot of little subtleties that mean this comparison isn't apples and apples.

Of course, it can't escape notice that while Baffert's violations did not take place in New York, NYRA still felt compelled to act against him. Two of Pletcher's cases originated there, but he is also one of the largest barns on the NYRA circuit, if not the very largest and one of the most successful. When he transfers his horses to South Florida, he has a tremendous impact on entries at Gulfstream, too. Baffert ships horses for high-profile graded stakes races in Kentucky and New York, but his presence at those facilities isn't a deciding factor in whether races fill. It would be a tough business decision for NYRA to exclude Pletcher, who has already run roughly a quarter of his 445 starts this year at their facilities.

And this, no doubt, is one of the elements that keeps racetracks from enacting their private property rights more often to exclude trainers. (That, and the certainty that a well-funded licensee will drag them to civil court to dispute their right to exclude.) If you're going to exclude one person with one set of circumstances, you're opening the floodgates to people who will ask you why you didn't rule off someone else. But that was the bargain Churchill and NYRA made when they chose to exclude Baffert. Time will tell how they handle the flood.

Editor's note: We were informed after the publication of this piece that one of the complaints against Pletcher in Florida — the “stacking” violation for ketaprofen and phenylbutazone — has been dismissed after the state lab received the results of split sample testing.

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