The dark side of Bob Baffert’s reign

As horse deaths and drug violations mounted, thoroughbred racing’s top trainer used power and money to keep beating opponents — and regulators.

Bob Baffert watches as horses work out at Churchill Downs in Louisville in 2020. (Darron Cummings/AP)

LOS ANGELES — In March 2020, horse racing’s most recognizable figure, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, declared that his sport was “in crisis.”

Federal prosecutors had just indicted more than two dozen trainers, veterinarians and others on charges related to doping horses, a seismic event in a sport already reeling from a well-publicized spate of horse deaths and perpetually dwindling revenue.

In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Baffert wrote that reforming racing was not just necessary to the sport’s survival but the only moral path forward. “Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our equine and human athletes,” Baffert wrote, “and nothing impacts their health and safety more than the policies and procedures concerning drugs.”

The bold statement appeared to put Baffert on the right side of history: By the end of the year, President Donald Trump had signed into law the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which promised to reform the sport. But the star trainer’s sudden support belied the fact that Baffert has for years been entangled with the very problems he blamed for his sport’s potential demise: drugs, dead horses and a feckless regulatory system.

At least 74 horses have died in Baffert’s care in his home state of California since 2000, more than all but two of hundreds of trainers in the state, according to a Post analysis of data and public records. But when factoring in the number of races run, Baffert’s horses have died at the highest rate of the 10 trainers who have had the most horse deaths.

In more than four decades in the sport, Baffert has faced significant regulatory scrutiny because of a high death rate only once, after seven of his horses collapsed in a short period of time at the same California track. State investigators found that his staff was mixing a potentially dangerous prescription drug into the feed of every horse in his care. But a top veterinary official cleared Baffert, finding that the spate of deaths “remains unexplained” following a probe that demonstrated the hazards of going after Baffert. Among them, according to interviews and records obtained by The Post: a push to have the veterinary official removed from office, supported by a trade group with Baffert among its directors.

Baffert also has wielded unmatched clout when regulators have discovered banned or excessive substances in his horses. Before his Kentucky Derby-winning colt, Medina Spirit, tested positive for betamethasone last month — which could erase the victory — his horses were cited for drug-related violations 29 times, according to the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI). But until now, those violations, some of which Baffert has succeeded in getting overturned or reduced, have resulted in roughly $20,000 in fines against $321 million in career earnings. Baffert’s lawyers have made explicit that he will accept fines but not a suspension, and state regulators have continually obliged him.

This pattern has bred frustration among some horsemen. In a scheme typical of the high-stakes warring behind the scenes in racing, four thoroughbred owners entered talks in 2015 with a private intelligence agency to dig up drug-related dirt on Baffert, according to multiple people with direct knowledge. The owners ultimately abandoned the plan after Baffert’s horse, American Pharoah, won the Triple Crown that year, fearing their effort could damage the sport, one of those people said.

As The Post reported in April, the Jockey Club, an industry group of top thoroughbred owners, then hired the same private agency, 5 Stones Intelligence, to probe suspected dopers. That investigation led to the indictments that Baffert said spurred him to embrace more oversight, so “the cheaters would be quickly caught and punished.”

But the sport’s new governing authority will not take over until mid-2022. And in the 13 months following his essay in The Post, Baffert’s horses tested positive for prohibited or excessive substances five times in three states.

“He’ll do anything to win, and he’s got all his bases covered politically,” Barry Irwin, owner of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, said of Baffert. “And because of that, he has become arrogant as hell. He’s Mr. Teflon.”

On a recent afternoon, Baffert appeared largely unperturbed by the firestorm surrounding him when he answered his door in Arcadia, Calif. “This is the first I’ve learned of it,” Baffert responded when told of The Post’s finding that he had the highest rate of horse deaths among other top trainers in the state. He declined to answer further questions.

But Clark Brewster, the attorney representing Medina Spirit’s owner, Amr Zedan, then contacted The Post and described Baffert as being unfairly maligned. He claimed that the horse death data provided by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) was “not possible.”

When The Post shared the data on 72 of the horse deaths with Brewster, he and Baffert’s lawyer, W. Craig Robertson III, said that one of the horses listed was never in Baffert’s care, though it is marked as his horse in CHRB records, and that another was a stable pony not being raced. The lawyers said that taking into account Baffert’s estimate of how many horses he has in his care, a count that differs from the starts data, “the number of deaths of horses in Bob’s barn is consistent with what would normally be expected from the horse population in general.” Starts are regularly used, including by the CHRB, to study the death rates of a trainer.

“No horse loving person like Bob or his entire team accepts the reality of a horse death with anything other than sadness and despair,” the lawyers said in their statement. “In each instance, the death is investigated. Every investigation over the past 20 years has reached the same conclusion: no rules or regulations have been violated nor has there been any improper activity on Bob’s part.”

Brewster also said that the vast majority of Baffert’s drug-related violations, as tracked by ARCI, shouldn’t be counted because they were too old or related to overages of otherwise-allowed drugs in a horse, which he dismissed as like “coming to work with too much Advil in your system.”

Robertson said in an e-mail that “[n]o one has done more for horse racing and is better for the sport than Bob Baffert,” and he listed various awards the trainer has received, including being inducted into four separate Hall of Fames. Robertson blamed the frequency of Baffert’s drug-related violations on how often his horses are tested after winning races and said, “Horse racing’s regulations need to catch up with the sensitivity of modern day testing.”

Jockey Club President James L. Gagliano dismissed that frequent complaint from Baffert. “There’s 10,000 other trainers who understand the ‘absolute insurer’ rule and don’t seem to run afoul of it,” Gagliano said, referring to the edict that any substances in the horse are the trainer’s responsibility. “Other trainers seem to navigate just fine.”

Monty Roberts, a trainer who has agitated for more humane treatment of racehorses throughout his six-decade career, said that Baffert has long been one of the most important voices holding the sport back from reform. Asked whether he was surprised by the finding that Baffert’s barn was the deadliest in California, Roberts laughed.

“If it surprised me it would be that I expected more,” Roberts said. “Bob Baffert has moved his way up the ladder to the extent that he has the most influential, the wealthiest owners in the industry, that he takes on the highest-quality horses possible — because he wins races. And he pushes the envelope to the extent that they give their lives for his bank account.”

Horse-racing deaths, like much of the sport, are shrouded by a disjointed bureaucracy. Racing lacks a central clearinghouse for data on deaths nationally, and regulators in many states do not track deaths by trainer.

In response to public records requests in Maryland, New Jersey and Kentucky, officials told The Post that they did not maintain digital records of horse deaths by trainer, instead keeping reams of copies of reports. The Jockey Club has a database of thoroughbred breakdowns — meaning deaths stemming from track injuries — but said it is barred from sharing its data because of its contracts with racetracks.

California keeps track of horse deaths by trainer, but there are errors and limits to the data. (At least one death of a Baffert horse identified by The Post was not included in the agency’s data.) The CHRB provided The Post with death data dating back to late 1990 showing that at least 87 of Baffert’s horses have died in California since then. The Post separately obtained start data dating back to 2000 from the Daily Racing Form to put the deaths into context. Earlier data was unreliable, the racing publication said.

The 74 total deaths since 2000 put Baffert third among trainers. Jerry Hollendorfer has the most deaths with 122. Like Baffert, Hollendorfer is in the thoroughbred Hall of Fame. But in 2019, he was banned from Santa Anita Park and affiliated tracks after four of his horses died there in six months. Hollendorfer’s lawyer, Drew Couto, has claimed his client is being unfairly blamed for a high-profile spike of deaths at the track.

In fact, Baffert’s horses, at 8.3 deaths per 1,000 starts, have died at a significantly higher rate than Hollendorfer’s, at 6.25. The average death rate for racehorses in California, according to an analysis of more than 5,000 deaths since 2000, is 7.2 per 1,000 starts. That’s much higher than the Jockey Club’s widely cited national rates, which never exceed two deaths per 1,000 starts. California counts all fatalities of horses in a trainer’s care, including breakdowns during training, not just racing deaths.

The majority of the deaths in Baffert’s care are attributed to breakdowns, though others have died suddenly without explanation and some of the horses suffered illness — including his most recent death, Noodles, in May where pneumonia was the suspected cause. The deadliest period came between 2000 and 2005, when 34 of Baffert’s horses in California died. Nine died in 2000, all but one from breakdowns.

When a horse dies in California, CHRB records often list medications the horse had been prescribed, based on its medical history. In the case of Baffert’s recent horse deaths, the records list a typical blend of drugs that have been allowed under certain thresholds, most frequently the anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone (or “bute” to horsemen) and furosemide (also known as Lasix), which is said to decrease bleeding from a horse’s lungs.

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On at least 14 occasions, Baffert has been caught racing a horse with more than the allowable amount of bute in its system, according to a review of ARCI data, making it his most common offense. He has often blamed drug positives on trace contamination from substances in a horse’s barn and has criticized tightening restrictions on the race-day use of bute and other drugs.

“The testing levels have become ridiculous,” Baffert told a conference of racehorse veterinarians during his keynote speech in 2000, according to a trade publication. “All they show is contamination, and they have really put the trainers’ heads on the chopping blocks. It hurts racing.”

In the same speech, Baffert agitated for the continued use of Lasix, which is popular with trainers but increasingly criticized as a potential performance-enhancer and masking agent for other drugs. He also dismissed complaints that doping was rampant in the sport. “We live and work in a fishbowl, with rumors and accusations flowing constantly,” Baffert said. “There are no secrets on the backside.”

Baffert is known for holding court on such ideas at Clockers’ Corner, a popular hangout for horsemen at Santa Anita Park. “He makes it clear that he believes in same-day medication and he believes in his whips,” said Roberts, who has long pushed to remove whipping horses from racing.

Arthur B. Hancock III, a prominent thoroughbred owner, has for three decades been a leading proponent for eradicating drugs from the sport. “He has not been in alliance with us,” said Hancock, mentioning Baffert’s many positive tests and then listing top trainers who have had one or zero positives in their career. “It’s all right there in black and white; that’s all I can say.”

ARCI President Ed Martin said the rules limiting race-day medications have been tightened not out of concern for performance enhancement but to prevent breakdowns. “There’s a recognition that certain substances are normal in equine care,” Martin said, “but if that horse still requires that, then maybe you shouldn’t run the horse.”

Martin made a distinction between doping horses with banned substances and running them with too much medication. “I don’t see somebody who is doping horses,” Martin said after reviewing Baffert’s drug-related history. “Some of the earlier violations do give you pause. But the overall record indicates that he may not be running as tight a ship as he should.”

It was obvious long before Miner’s Daughter collapsed in a blood-tinged froth in March 2013 that there was something amiss in Barn 61 at Hollywood Park, the Los Angeles-area racetrack. The 5-year-old mare was the seventh seemingly healthy horse from that barn to drop dead in 16 months.

“Drop dead while galloping,” read a California Horse Racing Board vet’s account of the first horse’s death in November 2011. It elicited little notice; racehorses die by the hundreds per year in California alone. But they don’t usually die in a cluster from a single barn for no clear reason. After Uncle Sam, a 4-year-old colt, died during a workout at the track the following January, a vet wrote: “This is the 3rd for this owner/trainer in about as many months collapsed and died.”

The owner was Kaleem Shah. The trainer was Baffert.

By then, Baffert’s encounters with regulators dated back decades, to 1977, when he served a yearlong suspension for racing a horse on morphine. But Baffert and his lawyers had since established a reputation for pugnaciousness when regulators attempted to discipline him.

In 2000, for instance, another of his horses, Nautical Look, tested positive for morphine, landing Baffert a two-month suspension. During a hearing, records show, Baffert argued the positive test could have been a result of his stable hands eating poppy seed bagels and muffins around the horse. One of his grooms, Clemintino Abrego Garcia, testified that Baffert called him three or four times attempting to get him to admit that he had eaten baked goods near the horse. The groom denied it. Garcia left California horse racing the next year, according to CHRB records; he could not be reached for comment by The Post.

Baffert sued in federal court, claiming the two months off could cost him $11 million in purses. “His attorney, let me just say, worked very, very hard,” recalled former California Deputy Attorney General Jerald L. Mosley, who represented the state in attempting to uphold the suspension. “That’s the only time I ever had to deal with somebody who tried to go to federal court to stop a state administrative action.”

Finally, in 2005, after the matter had returned to state court, the CHRB dismissed the suspension after an administrative law judge concluded Baffert “had nothing to gain and a great deal to lose by the use of a banned substance on this horse.”

Baffert further solidified his influence in the ensuing years. In 2007, he joined the 15-member board of the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC), a nonprofit that represents the roughly 9,000 CHRB-licensed owners in the state. With upward of $1 million in yearly revenue drawn from wagering at tracks, the TOC’s stated mission included “establishing fair and reasonable medication rules and integrity standards.”

Baffert, the group’s resident celebrity, was in business with several of his colleagues. Board member Michael E. Pegram had for decades hired Baffert to train his top horses, including the winner of the 1998 Kentucky Derby, Real Quiet. Former Democratic congressman Dennis Cardoza, also on the board, was co-owner with Pegram of Shakin It Up, a successful thoroughbred trained by Baffert. And Madeline Auerbach, who later became a CHRB commissioner, had partnered with Baffert in thoroughbred breeding. (Pegram and Auerbach did not respond to interview requests.)

Among the TOC’s central crusades was countering the movement against Lasix. In 2013 the group hosted a Lasix-focused event at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills at which one owner reportedly said running a race without the drug was like “waterboarding your horse in their own blood.”

In February 2013, with Baffert’s Hollywood Park sudden-death toll at six and California’s equine medical director, Rick Arthur, probing his barn’s operations, state legislation was introduced that would place term limits on Arthur’s position, eventually forcing him out of a $309,000-a-year job. The bill was introduced by California Assemblyman Adam Gray, a former aide to Cardoza who had been in office for less than three months.

The previous August, Bob Baffert Racing Stables had donated $1,000 to the TOC’s political action committee, California records show. Two months later, the PAC contributed $2,000 to Gray’s successful election committee. The TOC, of which Baffert is still a board member, did not respond to requests for comment.

Finding a new director every two to four years would cost $300,000 each time, a committee that analyzed the bill found. Gray’s office told the committee that “removing Dr. Arthur from his position, while intentional, is not the sole purpose of the bill,” records show. Gray said at the time that the bill also would increase the “institutional knowledge” of California’s central horse drug-testing lab.

Gray declined to be interviewed for this story, instead issuing a statement declaring that the “personal vendettas of others, perceived or otherwise, play no roll [sic] in the legislation I carry.” His spokesman added that campaign contributions do not affect Gray’s policy proposals.

Arthur said the TOC was behind the effort to oust him because of his criticism of Lasix. “There wasn’t any question in my mind,” he said recently. Cardoza, who now works for a law firm, denied in an interview last month that the TOC was involved: “Not at all.” But he then said, “TOC’s involvement in that bill had nothing to do with Bob Baffert.”

Instead, Cardoza said, the drive to oust Arthur was over his opposition to Lasix. “That didn’t feel appropriate to those of who wanted to see science prevail,” Cardoza said. The timing of the legislation was coincidental, he added: “I understand where you’re going and why, but there were no connections, from my perspective.”

Brewster, attorney for Medina Spirit’s owner, also said that Baffert’s issue with Arthur was about Lasix and that the timing was “irrelevant.”

Either way, the state-appointed official probing Baffert’s role in the deaths at Hollywood Park did so as his job was being threatened by the efforts of a Baffert-affiliated coalition.

The month after Gray introduced his legislation, Baffert’s seventh sudden death made the deaths at Hollywood Park a national news story. The CHRB officially opened an investigation. The month after that, Gray’s bill to limit Arthur’s term was passed out of a committee.

Arthur and CHRB investigators inspected Baffert’s barn, reviewed veterinary records and interviewed Baffert, who was flanked by an attorney. According to Arthur’s report, he found that Baffert was dispensing Thyro-L, or thyroxine, a prescription thyroid hormone, to all horses in his care. And Baffert’s veterinarians were prescribing it at his request without conducting laboratory tests to see whether the horses needed the drug, according to Arthur’s later report.

Arthur indicated in his report that thyroxine was suspected to cause heart problems for horses during exercise, and at least four of the sudden deaths involved confirmed or suspected cardiac failure. “How carefully the dosage was followed was not determined,” Arthur wrote. “Per Baffert, barn staff including grooms, were involved in administering the thyroxine in feed.”

Baffert told investigators he used the drug for about five years to “build up” his horses, which Arthur noted was unusual because it was typically used to slim them down. The veterinarian chalked up Baffert’s response to ignorance. “It’s not uncommon to find trainers who don’t understand medications and how different medications work,” Arthur said.

When Arthur delivered his report in November 2013, the bill to remove him from office was still pending. Arthur called Baffert’s blanket use of thyroxine “troublesome” and said at the meeting, “I haven’t found an example of a barn that uses it in all their horses like Baffert does.” Yet he determined that the drug wasn’t to blame for the deaths. His reasoning was that Baffert also administered thyroxine to horses outside of Hollywood Park, where his horses did not suffer sudden deaths.

Arthur also presented exercise histories for the horses that showed they worked harder than average. “The bottom line,” he said, “is if you’re a horse in Bob Baffert’s barn, you’re there to work.”

The cluster of sudden deaths “remains unexplained” and there was “no evidence whatsoever CHRB rules or regulations have been violated or any illicit activity played a part” in the deaths, Arthur’s report concluded.

In a recent interview, Arthur described his findings as “damning” for Baffert, in particular analysis in his report showing that, over a six-year period, Baffert’s horses were nine times more likely to die of sudden death than the average trainer’s. “It basically said something under his control is associated with these fatalities,” Arthur said, but regulators couldn’t act without evidence of a rules violation.

Following the publication of the report, Baffert tweeted: “I’m gratified that CHRB completed its investigation & found there was no wrongdoing. My focus will always be on the best care for my horses.” Shah, the owner of at least three of the horses, told The Post he had fully trusted Baffert as a trainer and “had no reason to suspect that he would harm the horses — he loves the horses.” Brewster, the attorney, said that Baffert believed the horses had ingested rat poison, traces of which were found in one of them. But Arthur’s report said Hollywood Park used a different sort of poison than that found in the necropsy.

Two months after Arthur cleared Baffert, the legislation to limit his term died. Four months after that, in May 2014, Arthur issued an advisory that the CHRB was “concerned by the apparently indiscriminate use of thyroxine” and that the drug “must be prescribed for a specific horse for a specific condition.” Arthur told The Post that the advisory was a result of the Baffert investigation.

Hollywood Park closed in 2013, and the saga of the dead horses there faded quickly from the headlines. But in 2018, Arthur was still on the job when another Baffert-trained horse tested regulators’ willingness to challenge him. After winning the Santa Anita Derby in April of that year, Baffert’s Justify tested positive for scopolamine, a banned substance, which normally would have disqualified the victory and made the horse ineligible to run in that year’s Kentucky Derby.

But after learning that Justify and another Baffert horse had tested positive for the same drug, Arthur announced in an e-mail to CHRB officials: “The scopolamine cases will be handled differently than usual.” Arthur said in a recent interview that he was referring to the logistics of what “was clearly going to be a high-profile case that needed to be handled carefully.”

Instead of promptly filing a public complaint against Baffert, the CHRB kept the positive result secret while Arthur conducted a lengthy investigation. Four months later, during a confidential executive session, Arthur and CHRB Director Rick Baedeker recommended that the commissioners not move forward with the disqualification of Justify, arguing that the scopolamine positive was probably the result of contamination from jimson weed. By then, Justify had won the Triple Crown, one of the rarest achievements in sports.

The board agreed not to disqualify Justify. It then changed the classification of scopolamine so that its detection in a horse would trigger only a fine and not disqualification and loss of the race’s purse. The positive test only emerged when the New York Times reported it more than a year later.

Mick Ruis, the owner and trainer of the second-place finisher in the Santa Anita Derby, has sued the CHRB. “What I can tell you definitely is this case was handled differently, and it was handled differently because of Rick Arthur,” said Ruis’s attorney, Darrell Vienna. (A CHRB spokesman declined to comment, citing pending litigation.)

Arthur has defended his handling of the Justify positive. “Usually, regulatory agencies do not have the guts to do what’s fair and right,” Arthur testified during a CHRB hearing in October, “and this board made that decision appropriately.”

He conceded that the lack of transparency was unusual. “And I’ve warned them that this was not going to stay a secret at the time,” he testified of the CHRB, “but that was their decision, not mine.” (Baedeker, who retired last year, told The Post they couldn’t legally disclose the test results because CHRB did not file a complaint.)

Arthur is retiring at the end of June from a job often consumed by the scandals of a single trainer.

“Bob Baffert has taken up more of my time than I ever should have had to deal with,” Arthur said, before again coming to the defense of Baffert’s treatment of his horses: “He certainly puts the pedal to the metal, but he doesn’t close his eyes. There’s one thing that I will say positive about Bob is that he is a horseman. And he does know generally when to stop on a horse.”

In 2015, a loose group of prominent thoroughbred owners hatched a plan — according to people with direct knowledge of it — to sic private eyes, from a firm called 5 Stones that helped bring down Russian dopers, on their sport’s most famous trainer. The goal, the people familiar said, was to get Baffert to support languishing reforms in the sport.

The scheme involved digging up drug-related dirt on Baffert and then telling him that the evidence could “disappear tomorrow” if he were to endorse the federal reforms of the sport, one of the people said. They had discussions with David Tinsley, the former DEA supervisor who runs 5 Stones, the people said, but the thoroughbred owners involved scrapped the plan. Tinsley declined to comment.

When asked about that plan, attorney Brewster said that in fact 5 Stones did investigate Baffert at the direction of the Jockey Club. Brewster alleged, without providing evidence, that the Jockey Club directed 5 Stones to investigate “anybody who doesn’t train for them and wins a lot of races and might run in racetracks they don’t run at.”

“You know what the conclusion was?” Brewster said of the alleged private investigation into Baffert. “He’s good.”

Gagliano, the Jockey Club president, denied that the group had any knowledge of whom 5 Stones investigated, outside of the eventual indictments. “It sounds like he’s deflecting,” Gagliano said of Baffert.

Regardless, the indictments appeared to sway Baffert, whose opinion piece in The Post supported “drastic action to fix a broken system.” Among the provisions in the federal legislation that Baffert supported is a phaseout of Lasix on race day — a reform Baffert had opposed for years.

But Baffert’s critics say his conduct after penning the article calls into question his seriousness about reform. In the next six months, three of his horses tested positive for banned or excessive substances four times in California, Arkansas and Kentucky.

In September, Baffert learned via a text message from Barbara Borden, chief steward for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, that his horse Gamine had tested positive for the anti-inflammatory betamethasone at the Kentucky Oaks. “This whole thing is ridiculous,” Baffert texted back, according to messages obtained by The Post via public records request. “When Did threshold change and what were they before?”

No amount of betamethasone is permitted in Kentucky races now, Borden wrote. Baffert responded: “Zero tolerance?”

Robertson, Baffert’s attorney, then tried to negotiate for Baffert to avoid potential suspensions in both Arkansas and Kentucky. “Bob is trying to put 2020 behind him and move forward in a positive manner,” Robertson wrote in an e-mail to Borden. “Closing everything and moving forward is in Bob’s best interest and the best interest of horse racing. Obviously if we can get the Kentucky case resolved, Arkansas will have the benefit of knowing that result before a final decision is made in that case. Again, we can most likely agree to most anything in Kentucky except a suspension.”

It went exactly according to the lawyer’s plan. In February, Kentucky racing officials decided against suspending Baffert, with Borden telling the Louisville Courier-Journal a lesser punishment was “all in the course of being fair.” And in April, Arkansas officials reversed the 15-day suspension for lidocaine positives that the trainer blamed on an assistant’s pain patch.

Less than two weeks later, Medina Spirit won the Kentucky Derby. A week after that, Baffert learned of the positive test. The drug was again betamethasone, and Baffert again expressed shock and vowed to clear his name.

Read more:

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Bob Baffert, long horse racing’s irreverent king, sits on a precarious throne

Bob Baffert, banned from racing horses in New York, sues state’s racing association