Some of 2024’s best horses will miss the Kentucky Derby as Churchill’s feud with Bob Baffert lingers

Cameron Drummond | Lexington Herald-Leader (TNS)

LEXINGTON, Ky. — This year’s historic 150th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville will, once again, be absent of the biggest name in modern horse racing.

Bob Baffert — the 71-year-old trainer who is tied for the most Derby wins by a trainer (six) in history — is once again barred from saddling a horse in the sport’s biggest event.

This will be the third straight Kentucky Derby without Baffert being the trainer of record for any horse in the field. But Baffert’s name has been ever present in horse racing while he’s been suspended from Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI) tracks for the last three years.

For anyone who could have possibly forgotten, here are the highlights from the last few years:

— In June 2021, Baffert was suspended from CDI racetracks through the end of Churchill’s 2023 spring meet after his horse, Medina Spirit, tested positive for a substance banned on race day after winning the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Medina Spirit was disqualified, and the 2021 Derby was awarded to the second-place finisher, Mandaloun.

The win by Medina Spirit initially gave Baffert a record-setting seventh Kentucky Derby victory as a trainer. Medina Spirit died in December 2021 in California. A necropsy on the horse showed no definitive cause of death.

— Last July, CDI extended the suspension of Baffert through 2024. CDI said, in part, that the suspension was extended “based on continued concerns regarding the threat to the safety and integrity of racing (Baffert) poses to CDI-owned racetracks.”

— Baffert sued Churchill Downs. In late January 2024, Baffert announced that he asked his attorneys to dismiss the appeal of Medina Spirit’s 2021 Derby disqualification.

— Last week, a Jefferson County Circuit Court judge denied a request for a temporary injunction that would have allowed a horse trained by Baffert, Muth, to enter this year’s Kentucky Derby. Owner Amr Zedan (Zedan Racing Stables) filed a lawsuit against Churchill Downs to try and get Muth, who won the Arkansas Derby, into the Derby field. Zedan also was the owner of Medina Spirit.

Baffert was not a party to this lawsuit. An appeal in this case was filed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals. On April 24, a Kentucky Court of Appeals judge upheld the original decision: Muth won’t be allowed to race in the Kentucky Derby.

This is a shorthand recap of a litigation-filled period for Baffert and CDI.

All the while, horses trained by Baffert haven’t been eligible to race in the Kentucky Derby. Horses saddled by Baffert that earned qualifying points in Kentucky Derby prep races vacated those points.

Workarounds were found, though.

Ahead of both the 2022 and 2023 editions of the Kentucky Derby, horses that were under Baffert’s guidance were transferred to one of his former assistant trainers, Tim Yakteen. With Yakteen as the trainer of record, several former Baffert horses were able to accumulate qualifying points toward and race in the Kentucky Derby.

But this year, none of Baffert’s horses were transferred to Yakteen, or another trainer, in the hopes of making the Derby.

Owners stuck with Baffert despite his suspension. In a show of solidarity, other trainers didn’t take on his horses.

So when as many as 20 horses load into the Kentucky Derby starting gate on May 4 and prepare for the 1 1/4-mile trip around the main track at Churchill Downs, a Baffert trainee won’t be participating.

But, clearly, Baffert will still play an outsized role in one of the biggest events in horse racing history.

Despite suspension, Baffert has been active on Kentucky Derby trail

The latest legal action taken by Zedan to try and get a Baffert horse into the Kentucky Derby was connected to Muth, a 3-year-old son of 2018 Kentucky Derby runner-up Good Magic.

Muth rolled to victory by 2 lengths on March 30 in the Arkansas Derby, a 200-point Derby qualifier. Between that performance, a win in the American Pharoah Stakes last October at Santa Anita Park and a second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November at Santa Anita, Muth would have accrued 125 Derby qualifying points.

That would place Muth in a tie for third on the Derby qualifying leaderboard, firmly in the field and among the race favorites.

In the moments immediately following Muth’s impressive Arkansas Derby win, the Fox Sports broadcast of the race interviewed legendary 88-year-old trainer D. Wayne Lukas after his horse, Just Steel, finished second and earned enough Kentucky Derby qualifying points to make the race.

Lukas’ comments during the interview weren’t about his horse, or the prospects of potentially winning a fifth Kentucky Derby himself. Instead, he lamented the fact that Baffert wouldn’t, and couldn’t, bring Muth to horse racing’s showcase event.

Over the last three years, the scene that played out at Oaklawn Park in late March — a Baffert horse running well and earning Derby qualifying points that were then vacated — has happened frequently.

In 2021-22, horses with Baffert as the trainer of record “earned” 103 out of a total of 2,363 qualifying points (4.4%) that were on offer in the 37 American Road to the Derby prep races. Baffert-trained horses occupied 12 of the 148 total finishing positions (8.1%) that awarded qualifying points in those Derby prep races.

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