Want to get rich quick? Then don’t buy a piece of a racehorse. For all but the wealthiest, most successful owners, visions of winner’s circle photo ops quickly get obscured by mounting bills for feed, hay, tack, training, and stabling. At the sport’s lower rungs, breaking even is winning big.
Count Don Wildermuth among the lucky few. He owned a piece of a low-level claimer, Won’t Be Missed, that Wildermuth joked “would participate, but wouldn’t really exert himself too much” during actual races. In spite of this tendency, Wildermuth and his partners entered Won’t Be Missed in four 2018 races at their hometown track, Saratoga Race Course, a 158-year-old venue so stuffed full of history that monocled ghosts have been known to tear up tickets after Charles Dickens blows their trifectas to smithereens.
Won’t Be Missed broke his maiden in his third Saratoga outing, at odds of 48-1. He went on to win one more race at Finger Lakes, finishing with a career record of two wins in 35 starts, and Wildermuth has gone on to become one of the chief handicappers for “The Pink Sheet,” The Saratogian’s racing pullout that’s printed on paper dyed to match.
“I know how lucky I am to have had an experience like that,” Wildermuth said of Won’t Be Missed, who, in fact, has been missed. “Everybody wants to win at Saratoga. Some never do.”
Everybody wants to win at Saratoga because the Spa, as it’s called, is truly special. The track sits a short distance from Saratoga Springs’ historic downtown, and during its summer meet, one could be forgiven for thinking it was the early 20th century, as the goings-on at the track retain a local influence unrivaled in the rest of 21st-century America.
During the annual meeting, families cart coolers into the track, treating themselves to swigs of lager and bites of cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches as they await the opportunity to wager on classy allowance races and the summer’s most sumptuous stakes schedule. Among these races is the Ballerina, a premier showdown featuring the nation’s top female sprinters.
‘Shoot ’em now and litigate later’
This year’s Ballerina will be run on Aug. 28. Already committed to the race is Gamine, the fastest filly in the land and the winner of last year’s Test at Saratoga, a race of similar stature that’s restricted to 3-year-olds.
Gamine has won eight of the nine races she’s been entered in, her only blemish coming in her lone two-turn race, the 2020 Kentucky Oaks. The distance would prove too much for her, but she hung on gamely to finish third — until she was disqualified.
Pursuant to that race, Gamine tested positive for having illicitly high levels of betamethasone in her system, and was eventually made to forfeit her winnings. This was after Gamine was initially disqualified from an allowance race she’d won handily at Oaklawn Park for another drug violation. (The DQ was ultimately overturned on appeal.)
Anyone who’s even casually followed the sport of horse racing over the past few years can probably guess who Gamine’s trainer was and, tellingly, still is: Bob Baffert, he of the perpetually growing list of drug infractions and outlandish excuses (he once blamed a narcotics violation on the presence of poppyseed bagels in his barn). After another of Baffert’s hopped-up horses, Medina Spirit, won the Kentucky Derby and was subsequently found to have excessive amounts of betamethasone in his system, Baffert first faulted cancel culture before changing his story to heap the blame on an ointment incident.
The hall-of-fame trainer has since been on a legal rampage, filing civil suits against the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (in an attempt to prevent Medina Spirit from forfeiting his Derby crown) and the New York Racing Association (in an attempt to continue racing at New York tracks after NYRA suspended him indefinitely after his tainted Derby win).
Earlier this month, a federal judge overturned NYRA’s suspension of Baffert, ruling that the racing organization — which operates Saratoga, as well as Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack — violated Baffert’s right to due process by denying him a hearing before banishing him.
“The point is every licensee — owner, trainer, etc. — has a property interest in their professional license,” explained Drew Mollica, a New York-based racetrack lawyer who used to be a prominent jockey agent. “The Supreme Court of the U.S. (Barry vs. Barchi) says that. As such, it cannot be taken away from any licensee without due process of law.
“The judges found NYRA to be a state actor. Thereby, they have to act accordingly. Even though NYRA seems to think they have the private right of exclusion, I take the position that they don’t have the right of exclusion. The court has deemed them, and properly so, a state actor. Shoot ’em now and litigate later is not acceptable.”
Referring to Baffert, Wildermuth added, ”He’s gonna be here [at Saratoga] on a technicality, I guess. I was proud of NYRA for saying, ‘We don’t need your business here.’ I’m not one of those guys who’s going to have a sign out that says, ‘Go home, Baffert,’ but it feels dirty that we weren’t able to keep him out. When is enough enough?
“I would rather he not be allowed to race here, because he doesn’t seem to have gotten the message to change his ways. Without any consequences, he’s going to keep doing what he’s doing. It taints it a little bit, not for fear that [Gamine] will destroy the field, but you can only hope that the horse is running clean.”
In other words, it’s a bad look to have Beelzebob Baffert crash through the gates of horse racing’s Vatican. But looks aren’t everything.
“Certainly, she is a filly with a rep, as it were,” Bloodhorse columnist Jay Hovdey told US Bets. “It’s not at all her fault. She’s a magnificent sprinting filly, probably the best since [the Baffert-trained] Indian Blessing. This race would have been on her radar from Day One. Last year, she won the 3-year-old filly equivalent, The Test. All things being equal and neutral and not part of the headlines, she would have been back there by hook or by crook anyway. Whether the optics are palatable, I guess that’s up to who’s doing the looking. The filly has tested clean in recent races, so whatever was going on last year has not been going on lately. It comes down to how we feel about this particular trainer running horses anywhere, not just New York.”
In the company of gangsters
Michael Beychok is among those who doesn’t think Baffert should be permitted to run anywhere, ever. Beychok picked the Kentucky Derby runner-up, Mandaloun, to win that race at 26-1, and thinks he should be compensated for the fact that Baffert’s alleged cheating prevented him and others from cashing girthy winners on the first Saturday in May. Shortly after the Derby, Beychok, a championship handicapper, filed a federal class-action lawsuit in Calfornia — since consolidated with a similar case and refiled in New Jersey — accusing Baffert of racketeering, among other misdeeds, and seeking compensation consistent with what the result would have been had Medina Spirit not been allowed to run for the roses.
Racketeering allegations are normally the dominion of gangsters, not horse trainers. Yet Beychok’s lead attorney, William Federman, thinks the dozens of infractions Baffert has racked up over the years constitute a pattern worthy of such classification.
“Look at the history in the complaint. How many times can the guy be found to have doped horses and continue to race?” said Federman. “He’s been doing this for years. He knows that by being very aggressive, he can back off the various racing associations. The guy’s wealthy, he’s gonna hire lawyers to fight everything, and a lot of horse owners are willing to tolerate dealing with Baffert and taking the risk. Until the horse owners are not willing to do that, the risk-reward is probably tipping in his favor.”
"Not a scintilla of truth."
Bob Baffert attorneys blister the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission in response to filing over Medina Spirit's Kentucky Derby urine samplehttps://t.co/rTfvJG9BmJ pic.twitter.com/k50vtrNzFc
— Horse Racing Nation (@HR_Nation) July 23, 2021
As far as NYRA is concerned, Baffert may have won a battle, but the war is far from over. While Judge Carol Bagley Amon indeed ruled that Baffert could race — for now — at NYRA-controlled tracks, she affirmed the organization’s ability to sanction the trainer and other horsemen, provided it follows proper protocols, which it says it’s putting in place.
Until then, expect Baffert to continue thumbing his nose at the sanctity of a sport that’s made him a very rich man, even if it means dragging humbler horsemen who play by the rules into the slop with him.
“At the end of the day, horse racing is about the horse,” said Sam Hollingsworth, another Pink Sheet handicapper who grew up in and near Saratoga Springs. “They have no voice of their own, but they deserve to be respected and taken care of like they do. There are so many good horsemen and horsewomen out there who would die for this sport and do anything for their horses, and it pains me to see them affiliated with the bad people and the bad things that have happened to certain horses.”
Photo: Pat McDonogh/Courier-Journal
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