A universal concept in regulating horse racing is “trainer responsibility.” When it comes to issues of behavior including, for example, drug positives, the trainer is held strictly responsible for what transpires in his or her barn.
Bob Baffert could well be the poster child for those who oppose that concept in both theory and practice. He has rarely accepted responsibility for his horses testing positive, most recently and notably, with Churchill Downs’ determination that Derby “winner” Medina Spirit had an impermissible medication in his system during the race. Baffert first denied that the medication had been administered to the horse and, when it became apparent it had, is now seeking to invalidate the plain meaning of Kentucky’s medication regulations.
There are sound reasons for holding a trainer to strict liability. The most common excuse advanced by trainers is “environmental contamination.” While I do not dispute that it sometimes occurs, here are Baffert’s excuses for his five positives in just the year leading up to this year’s Derby: lidocaine patch on his assistant trainer’s back (two horses); groom taking cough syrup who urinated in a stall; and, of course, the prohibited betamethasone that was contained on a patch applied to Medina Spirit to deal with a skin irritation.
But what about the responsibility of owners? There is a sense among some racing fans — and I wish I could say a “growing sense” — that owners bear at least some responsibility for the conduct of trainers they select for their horses. When trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro were indicted, along with veterinarians and pharmaceutical sellers, in March of 2020 for federal offenses related to illegal drugs, there was a common refrain of “everyone in racing knows these trainers are dirty.” But they were not the only trainers with suspiciously high win rates or remarkable form improvements when a horse was transferred to their barn.
It is one thing for a newcomer to the sport to be unaware of concerning trends. But what about those who have been in the game for a long time? And it is not just the abuse of drugs I am bothered by, but other aspects of horse welfare and safety.
A horse entered in Saratoga’s 8th race last Saturday brings all of these threads together. Restoring Hope is a six-year old horse bred and owned by Gary and Mary West. The Wests have been long-time participants in racing. Their initial trainer for this horse was Bob Baffert who trained the horse for his third-place finish in Aqueduct’s main Kentucky Derby prep, the Grade II Wood Memorial, in 2018. After two dismal performances in graded stakes, Jason Servis took over the training in 2019 following a break of almost 10 months. Following three decent performances at the optional claiming level over six months (where he was not entered for a tag), he was given another break, again of almost 10 months. Over the next eleven months and three races — and two additional trainers — the horse did not hit the board and earned only $5,700. His Beyers for those three outings were 68, 64 and 75. In his last start he raced with front bandages, often a sign of leg soreness.
So following a racing career covering parts of five years and almost a quarter of a million dollars in earnings, the well-heeled Wests were looking for either a piece of a small purse or perhaps someone to claim their home-bred, and entered him in a $35,000 claiming race. Mercifully, the veterinarian conducting the pre-race examination scratched the horse. It may have been an issue not detected by the barn, or a result of heightened scrutiny from examining the horse’s racing record.
Perhaps the Wests need the money since I do not think they have received their share of the purse from Maximum Security’s first-place finish in the $20 million Saudi Cup. The purse has been withheld since trainer Jason Servis’ indictment on illegal drug charges by the federal government. When Saudi Arabia becomes a moral compass on anything, we are in trouble. And we do not know what the Wests knew about the drug histories of either Servis or Bob Baffert when they retained them.
What we do know, however, is that they were willing to risk a horse who may have been injured, but was definitely well past his prime, for what would be a mere pittance to those of the Wests financial stature. But hoping to make a few bucks never justifies risking the health or life of a horse, regardless of one’s financial need. David O’Rourke, President and CEO of NYRA, has said that “protecting the horse” is one of his top priorities. It should also be the top priority of all owners, whether that means keeping their horses away from questionable trainers, or not placing them in potential harm’s way when there are red flags.
There is an expression among those active in the aftercare of racehorses of not “giving them one last race,” but rather stopping on them before it is to late for the animal’s well-being. It is a lesson that the Wests clearly do not practice.