The 60-day suspension handed down by the three California Horse Racing Board stewards against Eclipse Award-winning trainer Bob Baffert comes as no surprise, given the CHRB track record. Under the California rules of racing, any positive for morphine, even at an infinitesimal level, is a violation. Furthermore, the presence of the prohibited substance violates another CHRB rule that makes the trainer solely responsible for the condition of his horse. The absolute nature of the rules gave the stewards an opportunity to hide behind the letter of the law and ignore extenuating circumstances brought up during eight days of hearings earlier this year by Baffert's attorney, Neil Papiano.
Baffert learned of the suspension June 17, not from the CHRB, but from a reporter calling for comment. It was Father's Day, and the trainer was visiting his parents' home in Nogales, Ariz. Papiano happened to be at Hollywood Park that same day when a reporter asked him about the suspension. He hadn't been notified of the ruling by the CHRB, either.
That's ridiculous, especially considering the way the racing board hid information from the press last year when another Eclipse Award-winning trainer, Robert Frankel, had two horses test positive for microscopic amounts of morphine. The two Frankel positives turned up a short time after the Baffert-trained Nautical Look was found to have trace levels of morphine in her system after winning a race at Hollywood Park on May 3, 2000, while Baffert was in Kentucky.
Frankel has been through this before. In 1996 he was exonerated of a morphine charge when his attorneys convinced the stewards that poppy seed contamination could have caused the trace-level positive test in one of his horses.
Papiano has said he will appeal the Baffert ruling, adding the trainer also will file a federal lawsuit against the CHRB for violating his civil rights. During the hearings, it was disclosed that a blood sample taken from Nautical Look was thrown out rather than tested. The CHRB instructed its official laboratory, Truesdail, to discard numerous blood samples, purportedly as a cost-saving measure. Papiano said blood tests on Frankel's two positives also were discarded. "Isn't that a coincidence?" he asked.
Baffert and Frankel aren't the only high-profile trainers to be prosecuted in California in what many see as dubious cases. More than a decade ago, D. Wayne Lukas and the late Lazaro Barrera were charged by the CHRB with having horses test positive for cocaine. Both men eventually had their cases thrown out. Those mishandled incidents occurred prior to the arrival of Roy Wood as the racing board's executive director.
More recently, during Wood's tenure, the CHRB went after several trainers with outstanding reputations, including Ron McAnally, Richard Mandella, and the late Willard Proctor, after their horses tested positive for scopolamine. During hearings, it was disclosed the scopolamine likely came from jimsonweed in contaminated hay or straw -- possibly in the CHRB's own test barn. Nevertheless, according to one of the trainers charged in the case, Wood suggested the trainers may have purposely administered scopolamine -- despite the fact the drug can be deadly. An administrative law judge threw out the charges, but Wood wants to re-hear the scopolamine cases.
The CHRB is not cleaning up the sport by prosecuting trainers involved with trace-level positive tests. Instead, it is giving racing a black eye by blindly enforcing rules that were written before the development of the sensitive drug tests that are now available in most labs.
Papiano, who has been involved with cases before the stewards for years, said he is beginning to wonder if personal vendettas are driving some of the decisions made by CHRB staff. "There is some kind of strange situation going on here," he said. "This is insanity."