How Will Bob Baffert’s Ban Affect The 2024 Kentucky Derby?
Author: Lindsay Griffin
For many years, Bob Baffert was the undeniable king of the Thoroughbred racing world. Now he is closer to a pariah in many racing circles. What happened, and what does this mean for the sports marquee event?
Rise To Glory
The silver-haired trainer exploded onto the worldwide racing scene in the 1990s. The former Quarter Horse trainer finished second by a bare nose with Cavonnier in his first Kentucky Derby appearance in 1996.
He followed that near miss with not only back-to-back Derby victories the next two years from Silver Charm and Real Quiet, but Preakness victories for both. In fact, both horses were less than a length from taking the entire Triple Crown.
These exciting years proved to be a precedent for Baffert rather than mere beginners’ luck. Over the course of the first two decades of the 21st century, Baffert amassed four more Derby victories, five more Preakness victories, and three Belmont victories.
Silver Charm and Real Quiet were both avenged, as Baffert swept the entire Triple Crown with American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018. It seemed that Baffert had the Midas touch.
You can check here how many times Baffert put his name in the winners list: https://www.twinspires.com/kentuckyderby/winners/
Fall From Grace
Then, the cracks started to appear.
There was foreshadowing in 2020. That year, the Covid-19 pandemic forced Churchill Downs to postpone the Kentucky Derby and its distaff equivalent, the Kentucky Oaks, until September.
Baffert’s talented colt Authentic took the Derby en route to being named Horse of the Year, and the speedy filly Gamine placed third in the Oaks. However, a post-race drug test showed that Gamine had betamethasone in her system, and she was subsequently disqualified.
Less than a year later, Baffert entered the Derby (restored to its traditional date) with a colt named Medina Spirit, who qualified for the Derby by finishing second in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby.
Medina Spirit seemed to find the pace scenario in the Kentucky Derby 2021 to his liking and took the race in front-running fashion. It appeared that Baffert had now broken the Kentucky Derby record, having trained seven winners.
Then Medina Spirit’s drug test came back. Like Gamine, he was found to have betamethasone in his system and was disqualified. Although he went on to win the Grade I Awesome Again Stakes over older horses and finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, his story was marred a final time when he died suddenly following a workout that December.
Baffert tried in vain to fight Medina Spirit’s test results, but in the end, he was barred from competing at Churchill Downs, and thus the Kentucky Derby. Initially he was to be reinstated after 2023, but as the legal process continued, the ban was extended through 2024.
What Does This Mean?
Horses once trained by Baffert are still eligible to earn points toward Kentucky Derby qualification- as long as they were transferred to another trainer by January 29th.
Last year, the deadline for transferring horses was February 28th, which gave the owners of top-rated horses some more time to evaluate whether the Kentucky Derby was a realistic goal for their charges. Most were transferred to Tim Yakteen, a former protege of Baffert. However, none of the former Baffert trainees moved to Yakteen placed in the Kentucky Derby in 2022 or 2023.
That lack of results may have contributed to the January 31st revelation that this year, no Baffert three-year-olds would be transferred. This means that several horses were instantly removed from all Derby consideration, including futures wagers, causing quite a stir with oddsmakers.
Several of Baffert’s trainees had been considered to be among the top contenders for the Run for the Roses, and were accordingly being heavily bet on.
Among the horses now ineligible for the Kentucky Derby are undefeated Grade II Los Alamitos Futurity winner Nysos, multiple graded stakes winner Muth, and impressive debut winner Maymun, all of whom received significant attention in futures wagers up until this announcement.
These defections caused all who wagered upon the horses to lose their chance at winning, and they also caused the odds to shift on other highly regarded hopefuls. This most directly affected Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and Eclipse Champion Two-Year-Old Male Fierceness, who went from battling Nysos for favoritism to being the clear top choice, with significantly shorter odds.
While these horses are not able to collect Kentucky Derby points, they are still eligible to compete in Kentucky Derby prep races, which are often lucrative and prestigious in their own right.
The colts may prove themselves to be the true standouts of their crop, which could cause some fans to feel that the true quality is being excluded, especially if they already disagree with Baffert’s consequences.
However, Baffert’s flagrant rules violations could cause others to look at the prep successes- especially when coupled with the knowledge that Baffert’s charges tended to run poorly when transferred- and see it as further evidence of Baffert’s wrongdoing.
Regardless, the Kentucky Derby is far greater than one single person, and the traditions will continue without him, just as they have for one and a half centuries.