Bob Baffert was warned.
His friend, rival and former Kentucky Horse Racing Commission member D. Wayne Lukas thought Baffert was battling the odds “from the get-go” in fighting his suspensions from the state commission and the home of the Kentucky Derby.
“I told him, ‘Any other state, like Arkansas,’” Lukas said Saturday morning at Churchill Downs. “But here, with the grandest of all (races) in the state of Kentucky, with the whole world watching, I thought he’d have a hell of a time overturning any of those judges.
“And they all made that same comment: ‘The flagship industry of the state.’ Every one of them said that. That’s where their heart was.”
A shared Kentucky Derby history
With 10 Derby victories between them and an 11th lost to Medina Spirit’s 2021 disqualification, the two Hall of Fame trainers rank 1-2 among living trainers in most Derby wins. But both were on the outside looking in at the run for the roses as of Saturday, with Baffert serving the 20th day of a 90-day KHRC suspension and the 86-year-old Lukas in need of scratches to get his Ethereal Road into the 20-horse field.
The two men have served consecutive terms as the face of thoroughbred racing and have become virtually synonymous with the first Saturday in May. Over the last 41 years, only four Derbies have been run without one or both of them saddling starters. Baffert has won the race six times, Lukas four.
“You guys (reporters) could always go here or there and get somebody stirred up,” Lukas said.
Though Baffert’s customary Barn 33 has been reassigned this spring, and the plaques commemorating his many triumphs temporarily removed, his impact on Derby 148 is undeniable. Messier and Taiba, two erstwhile Baffert trainees entrusted to his former assistant, Tim Yakteen, are both seen as strong contenders that still bear Baffert’s stamp.
“I think no matter how those horses run, they’ll be Bob’s,” Lukas said. “Now, the general public, a lot of them, won’t know the difference. (But) All the horse people will know they are Bob’s.
“I think he outlined it very carefully (to Yakteen). I think they had a crash course, for sure. So I think (Yakteen) will follow, I’ll bet you, to the letter. He’d be crazy not to. You’re talking about a guy who came in here every year with extreme power. I would guess that (Yakteen) is not going to make any decisions.”
Yet when Lukas asked if he would “coach from the sofa,” Baffert told him he would do as he had been instructed and stay out of Yakteen’s way.
“I said, ‘Well I think that’s admirable because there’s a certain group of people that would like to see you mess up again, you know, and stub your toe maybe by being involved more than you should,’” Lukas recalled. “He said he’s going to walk away for 90 days and pick up the slack (then). I think he will because he tried everything to stay in the buggy and he couldn’t.’’
Lukas on Baffert suspension
Lukas said Baffert would have been better served to accept his suspensions rather than prolonging the process through continuances and litigation. Had Baffert agreed to the Kentucky’ stewards original hearing date of Oct. 6, a 90-day suspension could have been completed before any of the major Derby prep races. That wouldn’t have enabled Baffert to circumvent Churchill Downs’ two-year suspension, and it could have cost him Corniche’s victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but it could have kept him in play for the 2022 Preakness and, pending an anticipated penalty from the New York Racing Association, possibly the Belmont Stakes.
“I thought the whole thing should have lasted three days,” Lukas said. “We didn’t need to bring it to the public, which is uninformed, for eight months. That was the thing that I think was negative about it. The end result was the same anyhow. You knew that Churchill was not going to make a ruling of that magnitude and not follow through on it.
“I knew he was in trouble. The lawyers kept telling him he had a great chance here, great chance there. But I was a commissioner here and on the commission you’ve got five or six guys that are very, very knowledgeable, including one veterinarian. And then you’ve got a lot of them who don’t understand any more than the guy selling cars downtown.”
Bob Baffert was warned. He chose to fight a losing battle.