Sometimes I'm a little slow at figuring things out.
It's been just over four months since racing writers at several publications got ahold of California Horse Racing Board necropsy reports detailing the sudden, unexplained deaths of seven racehorses from the stable of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert over a 16-month period from Nov. 4, 2011 through March 14, 2013.
The horses died from non-musculoskeletal incidents during or immediately after racing or training. The number was extraordinary: during the approximate time frame of the seven fatalities, Baffert accounted for 2.5% of all starts in California but 19.4% of the sudden deaths.
The story generated a wave of bad publicity that led the normally approachable Baffert to issue a statement through Englander Knabe & Allen, a Los Angeles public relations firm that specializes in crisis management communications.
“I am working with everyone,” Baffert's statement read, “including the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), my veterinarians and staff at the tracks to find causes for the unexplained deaths. California Horse Racing Board's Bo Derek and the state's equine medical director, Dr. Rick Arthur, have made it clear that nothing I have done has caused any horse I have trained to suffer equine sudden death syndrome. My professional focus will continue to be to provide the best care for my horses, with constant concern for their well-being.”
Two months later, the California Horse Racing Board distributed an advisory, saying that it is “continuing its ongoing review of sudden death in racehorses. Given that one barn at Hollywood Park housed a relatively high number of the sudden deaths that occurred over the last two years, CHRB investigators have taken steps to determine if there was a relationship between the barn and sudden deaths.”
The June 21 advisory said the unnamed trainer – obviously Baffert – and his staff had been “very cooperative” and that pathology and toxicology work indicated there had been no “foul play.” Environmental testing of the barn is being done and the CHRB anticipates the results to be available in September.
Over the next several weeks, especially after arriving in Southern California to attend the Del Mar meeting, I was encouraged by numerous owners, breeders, trainers and other industry professionals to keep asking questions, because things simply didn't make sense.
I began to wonder why – if the CHRB has an ongoing review or investigation – commissioner Bo Derek, who chairs the Medication and Track Safety Committee meeting, and equine medical director Dr. Rick Arthur would have gone out on a limb and “made it clear” Baffert did nothing that led to the deaths. At least that was the phrase contained in the press release from Baffert's crisis management team.
Turns out Derek and Arthur said nothing of the kind.
“I am happy to defend what I say but am not responsible for what others say I said, especially someone's publicist,” Arthur said in an email to the Paulick Report.
Derek declined to comment directly but asked CHRB communications officer Mike Marten to state her position. “Dr. Arthur advised you in his email that he never made such a statement,” Marten wrote. “Commissioner Derek has authorized me to inform you that she never made such a statement, either.”
Marten went on to say Derek assumed comments attributed to her were taken from her report at the April 11 CHRB meeting on the Medication and Track Safety Committee meeting held the previous day.
Transcripts from that meeting quote Derek saying, “To be clear on another point, no trainer or trainers have been mentioned in our discussions of sudden deaths.”
The pathologists who examined the deceased horses certainly did mention Baffert's unusual number of sudden deaths.
In the necropsy report for Uncle Sam, a Kaleem Shah-owned horse who died Jan. 6, 2012, a notation said it was the third such death from the same owner and trainer in just over two months. Then, 5 1/2 months later, after Mike Pegram's CJ Russell died following a June 15 race, a pathologist wrote, “Fourth horse to collapse/die for this trainer in less than one year.”
The Paulick Report asked Eric Rose and Juan Garza, the Englander Knabe & Allen publicists who represent Baffert, where the comments attributed to commissioner Derek and equine medical director Arthur came from. They did not respond to emails seeking clarification.
Rose and Garza previously declined to facilitate an interview with Baffert on the sudden deaths, after the Paulick Report submitted a list of written questions to them. The questions were designed to give Baffert an opportunity to explain, among other things, exactly what he meant in his statement when he said “I am working with everyone” to determine the cause of the sudden deaths.
Did Baffert or his owners hire independent experts or companies to investigate on his behalf? If so, when? Did he make changes to his training, feed, barn management personnel, security, surveillance, or medication programs? When did he first turn over veterinary records on the deceased horses to the CHRB? Did racing board investigators conduct any unannounced searches of his barn, vehicles, tack rooms, or employee living quarters after the spike in fatalities?
“It is clear that you are not looking for answers, but rather you are looking to settle a grudge,” Rose responded to the interview request. “Therefore, Bob has no interest in providing answers to your questions – questions that he has answered numerous times.”
For the record, if anything, my relationship with trainer Baffert over the last 20 years probably has been too cozy. There was no grudge or score to settle. I would characterize our relationship as very friendly, at least until late March when I first asked about the horses who had died. He criticized other trainers for stirring up the controversy – calling them “jealous.” It struck me as sad that a trainer who has accomplished so much and promoted the sport so willingly was so quick to put the blame on other horsemen for something that happened under his watch.
And I'm quite certain Rose was not telling the truth about Baffert having answered those same questions numerous times before. As I learned from Bo Derek and Rick Arthur, publicists sometimes have a way of just making stuff up.
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