The New York Racing Association is to be commended for their actions in barring Bob Baffert from entering races or stabling at NYRA tracks including Saratoga Race Course. In its legal brief opposing Baffert’s motion for an injunction, NYRA encapsulated its position succinctly:
“Medina Spirit’s positive test marked the fifth time in the past year that a horse trained by Plaintiff tested positive for drugs, with the prior four drug-related violations culminating in fines imposed for regulators in three states. Rarely in the history of the sport has there been such a confluence of drug positives involving so prominent a trainer as Plaintiff.” (Emphasis in original.)
It may be long overdue, but race tracks are clearly wearying of Baffert’s standard shenanigans. When Churchill Downs barred him from racing there for two years, it cited his “increasingly extraordinary explanations” for his spate of positives. The NYRA brief noted his “history of drug-related violations” and his “contradictory statements” on the Medina Spirit positive.
It perhaps also reflects a realization that racing has nothing to gain from retaining Baffert. He has for many become the face of racing. That is partly a reflection of his success in the Kentucky Derby and his attraction to all forms of media. It is also, most regrettably, the reality that there is no other national face of racing. Quick — who becomes racing’s face if we should be so lucky as to never have to deal with Baffert again?
We also cannot lose sight of the fact that the drug for which Medina Spirit (and last year’s Kentucky Oaks filly Gamine) tested positive is betamethasone. The veterinarian cited in NYRA’s brief testified that the medication’s “ability to mask injuries can lead to ‘catastrophic injury,'” resulting in safety issues for both the horse and the jockey. It also compromises the public perception of the fairness of the race and the integrity of the sport.
As much regard as I have for NYRA’s leadership position in banning Baffert, albeit perhaps only temporarily, it does not carry over to their constant reluctance to be transparent on other issues. The Daily Racing Form‘s Matt Hegarty reported that NYRA had banned a veterinarian, whose clients include some of New York’s top trainers, from Belmont Park on Thursday recently, but reinstated him the next day. NYRA’s spokesperson “declined to offer details about the reason behind the decision.” Perhaps when you have your lawyers arguing in court about the importance of the public’s confidence in the integrity of your operations, you owe that public a fuller explanation. This is particularly so when the biggest non-Baffert racing story are the federal indictments of two formerly prominent trainers and several veterinarians being tried in the federal court a short hop from your New York base.
Then there is NYRA’s approach to dealing this year with the pandemic and Saratoga’s upcoming meeting. Last summer, of course, racing went on but spectators were not permitted. This year, it is back to full capacity with no real restrictions related to the deadly Covid-19 disease. I understand that Governor Andrew Cuomo will pull out the stops to distract from aspects of his mishandling of Covid, as well as multiple allegations of sexual harassment, but his latest victory tour (following his book debacle) smacks more of desperation than sound public health policy. I mean having fireworks displays to “celebrate” the ending of most restrictions when some of those fireworks are exploding over the sites where as recently as May corpses were still being stored in refrigerated trucks is more than tasteless.
The original plan was to have separate areas for the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, with proof of vaccination required if one wanted to go to the vaccinated areas. That seemed to make sense and serves both a protection for individuals with compromised health issues and an inducement to get vaccinated.
That’s now gone, and those who are not vaccinated will be “encouraged” to wear a mask. Uh-huh. I am guessing that unvaccinated people include a high percentage of those who have refused to wear a mask since this began early last year. According to the Governor’s figures last Friday, 64.6 per cent of New Yorkers (18 and over) have completed their vaccine regiment, and 70 per cent (18 and over) will have started.
What that means is that if you go the races at Saratoga this summer, one of every three persons you encounter will not be vaccinated. Now I understand there are a number of people who have not been vaccinated because of access issues (such as unable to get to a site) or have workplace issues (such as an inability to get time off). It seems obvious, however, that if you are at a racetrack in Saratoga Springs and are not vaccinated, those access issues do not apply to you. So we are left with those who have health conditions preventing them from getting a vaccine, and those without any sense of personal or civic responsibility. And one of three people you encounter is in that group. And I suspect that few health-compromised individuals will risk the high rate of exposure from encountering the irresponsible.
But why should anyone unwittingly expose themselves to persons so irresponsible as to not get a vaccine that protects both them and their community from infection? It is surprising that a state that rightfully can be proud of its response to reducing the risk over the past 16 months is now willing to throw that away on the mistaken view that everything is fine and back to “normal.”