The day Bob Baffert stops joking will be the day he stops breathing. He’s always ready with a quip — some of them hilarious, some straying toward questionable taste. That’s just how he rolls, in good times and in bad.
So America’s foremost thoroughbred racing trainer was eager to relate the line someone recently dropped on him: “Your barn looks like Nieman-Marcus after it was looted.”
In what is arguably the worst month of his spectacularly successful career, the analogy is both cringeworthy and accurate. The fancy merch is suddenly gone from the high-end Baffert barn.
His undefeated 3-year-old colts have both been injured: one, Nadal, with a career-ending leg fracture; the other, Charlatan, with a lesser ankle issue that will keep him out of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday and the Kentucky Derby in September. Then there was the sudden death of one of Baffert’s greatest horses, the retired stallion Arrogate, at the young age of seven. And there is the lingering cloud of positive drug tests for Charlatan and stablemate Gamine, dating to when those horses ran the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Race Course on May 2.
Arkansas Racing Commission director Smokey Campbell told Sports Illustrated this week that the state is still awaiting results of the horses’ second test samples. Those samples could confirm or refute the first positive tests, which the New York Times reported was for lidocaine, a topical numbing agent. If they come back positive, Charlatan will be disqualified as the winner of the Arkansas Derby and Baffert could face a suspension.
Thus the winner of two Triple Crowns and 15 Triple Crown races finds himself immersed in the two modern scourges of horse racing: Injuries and drugs.
Nothing has done more to erode the credibility of the sport than those two things. Horses breaking down are a sickening sight, and for decades it was tolerated with too much frequency. And one of the reasons cited by critics for some of the breakdowns has been the ability to pump infirm horses with medication designed to keep them running through injuries. The other facet of the drug issue: Bettors can’t trust what they’re watching, and who they’re wagering upon.
The sport’s drug problem landed with renewed force in March, when federal authorities charged 27 people in four indictments related to “the shipment and administration of … drugs designed to secretly and dangerously enhance the racing performance of horses beyond their natural ability …” Among those charged was trainer Jason Servis, alleged to have doped many of his horses, including disqualified 2019 Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security.
The positive tests Baffert is dealing with are nowhere near the charges facing Servis and fellow trainer Jorge Navarro — nobody is lining up to declare him a felonious drug cheat. But it would be his second time through the drug-test sausage factory in the last couple of years, after a positive test in 2018 for Justify was allowed to linger in secret by the California Horse Racing Board while that horse went on to win the Triple Crown. That led to a bombshell New York Times story in September 2019.
That positive test was attributed to “environmental contamination” — jimson weed, specifically, which contains scopolamine, a banned race-day substance. It was in a shipment of feed and straw that was ingested by a number of horses based at Santa Anita Race Track. Several of those horses wound up testing positive for scopolamine. Any assertion that Baffert deliberately drugged his star horse did not hold up.
Now, however, he has a second positive test involving a high-profile horse — Charlatan looked like the next in Baffert’s long line of great speed horses at the time of the positive test.
Baffert reluctantly declined comment to Sports Illustrated on the drug tests, citing the ongoing process. People in the racing business who know Baffert said he’s confident that both he and his horses will be exonerated in the end. If not, it would be a tangible blow to racing. He’s the biggest name and most recognizable face in the sport, and one of the all-time greats.
“If there was a Mount Rushmore of horse trainers, he would certainly be on it,” said Dick Jerardi, longtime racing columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and other outlets. “And yeah, look, if one of your star horses has a positive, it’s not good news. There is no way to put a happy face on it.
“But people see a positive test and don’t differentiate between them. The thing from two years ago, that was nothing. And this thing (the current positive tests) is not something people should equate to a Lance Armstrong or Barry Bonds. But it’s a really bad look for him.”
With his career suddenly turned into a country song, Baffert is sitting out the first leg of the rescheduled Triple Crown Saturday. A guy who appeared poised in mid-May to dominate the series will watch the Belmont on TV like everyone else.
“We had them on schedule,” he said. “It just didn’t work out. I felt like the Chicago Bulls and then, boom. Until you get that [championship] ring on your finger, you can’t count on anything in this sport.”
On May 2, Nadal cruised to a dominant victory in the first of the two flights of the Arkansas Derby. Then Charlatan did the same in the second flight. Those two, along with Tiz The Law, appeared to be the three stars of the 3-year-old class. The only question was whether they could stay in top form until June 20 and then beyond, to a Kentucky Derby moved to Sept. 5 and Preakness moved to Oct. 3.
Things fell apart very quickly.
Nadal suffered a condylar fracture in training and was retired to stud in late May. Then Charlatan turned up with what Baffert said was a minor ankle issue that nevertheless needed surgery — it was repaired Wednesday in Ocala, Fla., and Baffert estimated the colt could be back in his barn in 30 days.
Still, Baffert had another unbeaten 3-year-old in the barn in Authentic. But he was being pointed toward late summer and early fall, and he lost as the 1-2 favorite in the Santa Anita Derby just a couple of weeks ago — too close to make the turnaround to the Belmont.
“If the Belmont was a week later, I probably would have had Authentic there,” Baffert said, adding that the horse’s next start could be the July Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, with jockey Mike Smith aboard.
There are a couple other late-blooming 3-year-olds in the barn, Uncle Chuck and Cezanne, but they’ve each raced just once thus far. “They’re walk-ons,” Baffert said. “Pretty good walk-ons.”
(Cezanne’s owners paid $3.65 million for him last year — not exactly walk-on pricing.)
Horse racing has always been a game of tingling highs and jarring lows. Bob Baffert has experienced plenty of both, with longer sustained runs of success than just about anybody, ever. But after being pummeled by injuries and positive drug tests, he’s careened from being the sport’s leading ambassador to its cautionary tale.