Judge rules against attempt to get Bob Baffert-trained horse into 2024 Kentucky Derby

DEL MAR, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 05: Trainer Bob Baffert looks on in the winners circle after his horse Corniche.
Trainer Bob Baffert (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

The attempt to allow Bob Baffert to run a horse in this year’s Kentucky Derby was denied in a ruling on Thursday, possibly ending a last-ditch effort by owner Amr Zedan to get Arkansas Derby winner Muth into Churchill Downs.

The court did deny the effort by Churchill Downs to have the suit dismissed, but it is a race against the clock to get any Baffert horses into the May 4 Derby.

Baffert is not a party in the suit.

Zedan Racing plans to file an appeal, likely on Friday, and ask for expedited relief from a three-judge panel.

“We are disappointed in the court’s decision on our request for temporary relief, as we believe the court did not recognize the significant investment Zedan Racing has made, based on statements by Churchill Downs that if this trainer had no additional violations, Zedan Racing’s horses will have would be able to compete,” a spokesman for Zedan Racing Stables said.

“We will appeal this ruling on an emergency basis as soon as possible. The goal of our effort remains to ensure our horse Muth will have once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in the 150th Run for the Roses on May 4th.”

Read more: Bob Baffert could end up in Kentucky Derby if new lawsuit is successful

In the 10-page ruling, Judge Mitch Perry of Jefferson County, Ky., noted that Zedan “has transferred its horses to a different trainer and those horses have been eligible to run in the Derby the previous two years. For the 2024 racing season, [Zedan] voluntarily made the decision to not transfer its horses to a new trainer. … The Court appreciates the once-in-a horse’s-lifetime nature of the Kentucky Derby, but the other aspects at play prevent this factor from weighing fully in favor of [Zedan] and injunctive relief.”

Churchill Downs Inc. responded to Thursday’s ruling with humor.

“We are pleased with the Court’s decision today and believe Mr. Zedan may suffer from a case of ‘Derby Fever,’ which is known to spread with exposure to horses and is contagious this time of year,” a Churchill Downs statement read. “Symptoms can contribute to questionable judgment and in extreme cases can result in litigious behavior. There is no known cure.

“Nevertheless, we have communicated clearly about the rules of entry, which are the same for everyone and are non-negotiable. Contenders cannot sue their way into the Kentucky Derby. We wish Mr. Zedan well in the future and appreciate both his passion for the sport and his desire to see his horses compete on the First Saturday in May.”

Read more: Bob Baffert will not transfer any horses to other trainers for Kentucky Derby

The situation was created when Medina Spirit, trained by Baffert and owned by Zedan, won the 2021 Kentucky Derby but failed a post-race drug test for a medication that is not legal on race day. Churchill Downs suspended Baffert for what was thought to be two years, however in July it added at least one more year to the penalty because it believed Baffert was not contrite enough.

Baffert, who has had no violations in any state since the 2021 Derby, and Zedan filed numerous suits to overturn the disqualification of Medina Spirit and suspension of Baffert, but were unsuccessful.

This suit was different in that it contended that two years ago, Zedan bought six horses for $10.7 million, all with the understanding that those horses would be eligible to run in this year’s Kentucky Derby. That suit remains intact, despite the fact the race will run before adjudication is complete.

“This is undoubtedly a close call,” the ruling read. “The Court will continue under the assumption that there is sufficient standing to proceed, and given that [Zedan’s] injunction is deficient on other grounds, there is no prejudice to any party by proceeding with the analysis.”

Read more: Stronghold gives trainer D'Amato and jockey Fresu a spot in the Kentucky Derby

The judge did question Zedan’s attorneys about why the suit was filed so late. They responded that it wasn’t an issue until Muth won the Arkansas Derby on March 30. He normally would be eligible for 100 Derby qualifying points and guaranteed a spot in the field of 20.

Perry also mentioned his concern for “innocent third parties who will have their horses removed from the Derby field to make room for [Zedan’s] horse should the Court grant injunctive relief.” But the Derby has run with more than 20 horses on several occasions. In 1981, the limit was broken when a dispute over coupled entries (two horses running for the same owner and trainer) caused a judge to rule the extra horses into the race.

The judge may have put himself in the middle of another controversy. One of the arguments made by Zedan’s attorneys is that Churchill Downs violated the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act by extending the ban by at least one year. Perry indicated that the rights of Churchill Downs supersede that of HISA, a federal organization.

“The Court is doubtful about this claim as well given that a preemptions exists when there is a conflict between federal and state law,” Perry writes in the ruling. “Instead of a conflict between state and federal law, [Zedan] appears to be arguing a conflict between federal law and the actions or rights of a private entity. The Court is unpersuaded at this point that preemption extends as far as [Zedan] suggests."

HISA did not immediately respond for comment.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.