In the 1991 film “What About Bob?” Title character Bill Murray drives his new psychiatrist on as he relentlessly unpacks his confused thoughts, phobias, and self-spun truths.
A gem from the latter: “There are two kinds of people. Those who like Neil Diamond … and those who don’t. “
That could be true of a real Bob, a competitive and polarizing coach Bob Baffert.
While the horse racing world waits to hear the full aftermath of the apparent drug-related disqualification of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, Baffert remains the biggest name – and a flammable debate tinder – as Del Mar rushes to the opening of its summer get-together on Friday.
Should Del Mar ban Baffert from its booths like the makers at Churchill Downs and New York’s mega-tracks Belmont, Saratoga and Aqueduct have? Or is this a due process abdication for something that happened in another state and remains unsolved until a state regulator, in this case the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, decides – regardless of Baffert’s radioactivity?
Many would argue that the villagers should grab the pitchforks, light the torches, and drive the sport’s most famous winner with an equally recognized reputation for crossing borders on every route in America.
Others praise Baffert for being a relentless megaphone for a sport that is routinely on the verge of losing our yesterday. A rising tide lifts all boats.
Del Mar has chosen to keep up with industry practices and coordinate decisions made by regulators in other states. If no verdict arrives from Kentucky this week, the doors and booths will remain open for Baffert. If there is a ban or a lock, it is triggered where the lawn meets the surf.
“Every day I am asked, ‘What are you going to do with Bob?’ “Said Joe Harper, CEO of Del Mar.” They say, ‘He’s your friend.’ It has nothing to do with it. We will be informed of the Kentucky decision. It was thrown by Churchill and NYRA (New York), but those were track decisions, not a governing body in those states.
“Normally we would respect these other government decisions and I don’t see it any other way.”
Harper explained why four-legged reciprocity is important. If someone is caught and sanctioned in one state, observing judgments in other states acts as a deterrent. Otherwise, a perpetrator can simply pack up, scurry to another route and march on to the starting gate.
A text to Marc Guilfoil, the executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, asking if a Baffert decision could land before Del Mar opened was not immediately returned.
It’s fair to ask about Del Mars’ 2019 decision to ban trainer Jerry Hollendorfer after six horses died in his care at meetings in Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields.
Hollendorfer argued that there was no evidence of violations or negligence that prompted the decision beyond the clear public relations discomfort and won an appeal to return. Harper said he couldn’t comment as a lawsuit had been filed against the track.
One clear difference, no doubt about it: one of them was horse deaths, while Baffert’s situation revolves around an anti-inflammatory drug approved for limited use in Kentucky – if not on race day.
Nevertheless, the vortex of a stripped derby winner moves Baffert into the most uncomfortable spotlight of his life. A Washington Post report last month entitled “The Dark Side of Bob Baffert’s Rule” offered a powerful portrait of success, power and influence.
Baffert stated via SMS that he is currently not conducting any interviews.
“Good question,” said Harper when asked how this has shaped his legacy. “I don’t know what to answer because I haven’t spoken to him to understand from his side. But if I picked up the Washington Post and it said ‘Joe Harper’, that would affect me.
“Bob is a story, but he walks in Santa Anita and some in Los Alamitos. So life is normal in California until we hear from the Kentucky Commission. “
However, life in Del Mar is hardly going to feel normal when it comes to Baffert.
The enormous platform he built in this sport, touched with the prominence of the derby, makes him the biggest target and elephant bull in every room. The hot potato is now being passed on to Del Mar, Baffert’s maddened home.
That’s a good question … and one that won’t go away anytime soon.
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