Entertainment & Sports Law

You can't litigate your way into Kentucky Derby, says Churchill Downs' general counsel

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Bob Baffert-trained Arkansas Derby winner Muth, ridden by jockey Juan Hernandez, won the Grade 1 $300,000 American Pharoah Stakes horse race on Oct. 7 in Arcadia, California. (Photo by Benoit Photo via the Associated Press)

The Kentucky Derby has long been known as “the fastest two minutes in sports,” but the 150th Run for the Roses on Saturday will take place without Muth, a horse some say may have been the fastest in the field this year.

The controversy involves Muth’s trainer, Bob Baffert. A Hall of Fame trainer, he also worked with 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, who failed a post-race drug test for steroids that caused the disqualification for Baffert as well as a two-year suspension.

In a June 2023 interview with Fox Sports, Baffert said he probably would not have done anything different and claimed Medina Spirit was never injected with steroids but rather was the victim of a substance in a topical ointment.

On July 3, 2023, Churchill Downs extended Baffert’s suspension through the end of 2024. It claimed Baffert was continuing to “peddle a false narrative concerning the failed drug test of Medina Spirit.” The suspension applies to any horse Baffert trains.

Churchill Downs also cited “continued concerns regarding the threat to the safety and integrity of racing Baffert poses to CDI-owned racetracks.”

“Churchill Downs didn’t say, ‘You’re banned for two years and you can come back as long as you eat humble pie.’ All of his horses raced clean,” says John Quinn, who, on behalf of Zedan Racing Stables, which owns Muth, sued Churchill Downs in Jefferson County, Kentucky, circuit court.

The complaint, which sought emergency injunctive relief to let Muth race in the Kentucky Derby, was filed April 3.

“Our client respects Bob Baffert’s talent, relied on the two-year ban and invested in anticipation of being able to race in the Derby this year. Churchill Downs pulled the rug out from under him,” adds Quinn, a name partner at Quinn, Emanuel, Urquhart & Sullivan.

Amr F. Zedan, a Saudi Arabian businessman, owns Zedan Racing Stables. The trial court denied Zedan’s motion for emergency injunctive relief seeking to let Muth race in the Kentucky Derby. The decision was upheld April 24 in the Kentucky Court of Appeals, and Zedan is not appealing, according to Quinn.

In an official statement, Churchill Downs said it reserves “the right to extend Baffert’s suspension if there are additional violations in any racing jurisdiction.”

In a statement provided to the ABA Journal, Churchill Downs’ executive vice president and general counsel Brad Blackwell said the trial court and the appellate court both rejected “Mr. Zedan’s effort to litigate his way into the Derby at the expense of other owners and trainers who played by the rules.”

AP_Bob_Baffert_800x.jpg Trainer Bob Baffert stands for a photo ahead of the Breeders’ Cup horse races at Santa Anita in Arcadia, California, on Oct. 27, 2023. A judge has denied a request by the owner of Baffert-trained Arkansas Derby winner Muth for the colt to run in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. (Photo by Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

Zedan Racing Stables, a frequent employer of Baffert’s, spent more than $14 million on horses in preparation for the 2024 Kentucky Derby with the expectation that he would be reinstated. During the two-year suspension period, nearly 700 of Baffert’s horses raced elsewhere without a violation, according to the complaint.

In an April 24 order, Kentucky Court of Appeals Judge Jeff Taylor wrote that letting Baffert participate in the 2024 Kentucky Derby would allow him to circumvent Churchill Downs’ rules.

Taylor also found it significant that Zedan failed to take legal action until April 2024, nine months after Churchill Downs extended Baffert’s suspension.

“Any harm incurred by Zedan would have been self-inflicted by its own conduct,” Taylor wrote.

As an example, the judge pointed to the fact that Zedan had until Jan. 29, 2024, to hire a new trainer so that Muth would have been eligible to race.

“Why they waited, I don’t know,” says Randy Catanese, a California equine lawyer.

“With injunctions, courts are always going to ask, ‘What’s the urgency?’ There is no question [Zedan] sat on his rights,” the Catanese & Wells partner says.

But according to Quinn, there was a logical explanation. He claims Churchill Downs would have said this was a “hypothetical issue” last July by arguing that Muth might not qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

“It only became an issue once the horse qualified by winning the Arkansas Derby [on March 30],” says Quinn, who filed the lawsuit in Kentucky four days after the Arkansas win.

Quinn also claims there was “undisputed evidence” that changing trainers is not good for the horse. In 2022 and 2023, Zedan and other owners reportedly experienced disappointing results after switching trainers prior to the Kentucky Derbies those years.

“After returning to Baffert, most of these horses returned to form,” the lawsuit states.

Churchill Downs argued it would be unfair to other horses to remove one (or more) that had fairly qualified for the Derby in favor of the Baffert-trained Muth.

Luke Morgan, a Lexington, Kentucky, attorney, believes the Kentucky Court of Appeals reached the right result.

“No one has a larger stake in the integrity of horse racing than Churchill,” says Morgan, a McBrayer member. “They may have information we’re not privy to.”

Catanese agrees that integrity concerns were in play, but he points to fault on both sides.

“Baffert upset some people there, and they [Churchill Downs] reacted in an emotional way,” Catanese says. “But a lack of contrition doesn’t play well in Poughkeepsie.”

Lack of contrition aside, Catanese believes Zedan had some good arguments on a reliance that it was “reasonable and foreseeable” Baffert’s suspension would end had Zedan filed the case earlier.

Muth is already listed as an early favorite at the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, which is in Maryland, where Baffert’s horses are eligible to race. But the fact that Muth cannot race in the Kentucky Derby is unfortunate, according to Quinn.

“I don’t think Churchill Downs comes out of this case with a halo over their heads,” he says. “There are lots of disappointed fans and professionals in the horse racing industry.”

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