Team Valor founder Barry Irwin discusses the controversial Kentucky Derby suspension of the training legend, and its importance to the sport as a whole.
UNITED STATES: The Bob Baffert ‘case’, the collection of mistakes made or allowed under the trainer’s supervision, is extremely important to the survival of horse racing in the United States.
Why? Because for the first time in memory, a well-connected actor in the turf sport found himself unable to rig a get-out-of-jail card to exploit the system.
Historically, a large number of high-profile individuals over the years have used their friends in high-profile places to sneak around and avoid significant sanctions, suspensions, or fines as a result of breaking the rules.
In racing, the given is that well-connected people will never have to suffer the humiliations meted out to jockeys who have not cultivated important relationships among administrators, racetrack owners, race commissioners, racing organization leaders, veterinarians in strategic positions and wealthy political donors to ensure that one day, when a favor is needed, it will be there for them.
I’ll freely admit that I never thought Baffert would be anywhere near the trouble he got himself into. I thought he was too smart, cunning and methodical. And if he gets caught, I never thought his network of friends in high places would stop him from being subjected to the penalties that others have faced.
My take on the Baffert fight is that the rules he was penalized for breaking were minor Mickey Mouse violations, neither of which individually would have gotten him into the hot water he’s in now.
We all have our opinions about what Baffert may or may not have done, but my guess is that if Baffert had been caught engaging in other, more serious activities, it would have landed him in much bigger trouble and a considerably longer ban.
But where Baffert went wrong was that his arrogance, a product of years of race officials letting him off the hook, caused him to be careless. And it’s just that carelessness in total, the whole mess of minor offenses over a relatively short period of time, that created enough of a negative image of the white-haired Arizonan to make him vulnerable.
And then, to make matters critically worse, Baffert went and pushed the bear. He messed with the brand of North America’s premier horse racing entity, the Kentucky Derby, which runs under the historic Twin Spiers at Churchill Downs.
Baffert wrongly assumed, for once, that due to his impact on the Race for the Roses and the Triple Crown, he was bigger than the game. He felt he was too important for racing brass, especially in Kentucky, to lay a hand on him.
Well, sports fans, he found out otherwise when Churchill Downs banned him for two years and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission issued Baffert a 90-day suspension, then denied a suspension while he appealed.
Going back to the original question, why is the Baffert thing so important, especially at this time? Because racing is going through an unofficial trial, so to speak, and the jury is the American sports public, strongly supported by animal lovers and admirers of fair play in athletic competition.
These public factions, a loosely stoned group making personal assessments after seeing the evidence unfolding in the media (both traditional and social), have had enough of Baffert and his antics.
They have found him guilty and want to make sure that justice is done. If they don’t feel that proper justice is meted out in favor of the animal, rival competitors, jockeys, and fans, they will dismiss the game as rigged and simply not worth playing or watching any longer.
Along with other like-minded participants in different positions in the racing industry, I have fought long and hard to create a level playing field. As one of those at the forefront of pushing through the federal legislation that led Congress to create the group now known as HISA (Horse Racing Safety and Integrity Authority), I for one realize the importance of hold someone like Baffert accountable for his misdeeds.
For my part, I believe that the most essential aspect in creating HISA is to have a body that upholds the integrity of our sport no matter how well connected or powerful an individual may be.
It is a testament to the importance of the Kentucky Derby concept and what it represents, both in and out of racing, that even before HISA was established, someone in the industry showed the public that the current leaders of the sport of Reyes placed the sport and welfare of the horse above the most powerful trainer in the modern history of North American racing.
When HISA is fully up and running, we in racing should be able to count on the actions that led to Baffert’s ban and suspension becoming commonplace.
Barry Irwin is the founder and CEO of Team Valor International.
• This article was originally published in the Paulick Report website
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