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Hall-of-fame trainer Bob Baffert is banned from Saturday's Kentucky Derby

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The most famous horse-racing event is tomorrow. This year's Kentucky Derby features 20 thoroughbreds. But it's missing the sport's most famous human. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has been suspended because of a series of failed drug tests by his horses. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: One year ago at famed Churchill Downs Racetrack, it took a tick over 2 minutes for a thundering thoroughbred to land its famous trainer in the winner's circle a record-breaking seventh time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE TIRICO: Heading to the finish in the Kentucky Derby. Here's the wire. Bob Baffert does it again. Medina Spirit has won the Kentucky Derby.

GOLDMAN: But eight days later, Bob Baffert announced Medina Spirit failed a drug test after the derby. It began a monthslong saga that resulted in the horse's disqualification and Baffert's derby record reverting to a record-tying six victories. He also was punished with a two-year ban from Churchill Downs and the current 90-day suspension that takes him out of all the Triple Crown races. Gone for now is the trainer instantly recognizable with his white hair and tinted glasses, who entertains media and fans with his wisecracks and poetic takes on racing, like this one in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB BAFFERT: A good horse is like a good song. You just remember what you were doing when that song was playing or when that horse was running.

GOLDMAN: The memory of Medina Spirit is a sad and contentious one. The horse suddenly died after a workout late last year. Baffert's defense of the failed test, he says it was inadvertently caused by a legal topical ointment. And his fight against the resulting bans led to lawsuits and angry media appearances. This was Baffert on "The Dan Patrick Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE DAN PATRICK SHOW")

BAFFERT: I think it was just a knee-jerk, cancel culture kind of reaction.

GOLDMAN: But horse-racing journalist Ray Paulick says Baffert's history makes the sanctions against him seem anything but knee-jerk.

RAY PAULICK: He had seven medication violations in three states over a 14-month period, beginning in 2019.

GOLDMAN: Paulick publishes the Paulick Report, which covers thoroughbred racing and breeding around the world.

PAULICK: So I think what Churchill Downs is saying, you've been sloppy. You've made too many mistakes. We're tired of it. We're tired of the way you're reacting to it. And we're going to give you a two-year timeout, basically.

GOLDMAN: Baffert is revered in some quarters for his abilities. He's won with the most expensive horses and those without the best pedigree. He's reviled elsewhere for the history of drug violations and high rate of deaths of horses under his care. Ironically, perhaps, his 90-day suspension is due to end July 2. A day after, a major reform effort begins - the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act goes into effect. Among its provisions, a plan to fix the current patchwork of drug regulations in horse racing. Marty Irby is with Animal Wellness Action.

MARTY IRBY: For the trainers and for the industry, this brings certainty and consistency where they know the same rules are going to be the same in every state, at every track and that they're not going to be using any kind of drugs on race day.

GOLDMAN: His optimism, though, was blunted this week when it was announced the respected U.S. Anti-Doping Agency won't be hired to enforce the law as some backers hoped. Irby says the law still will be better than the current status quo but not nearly as good as things could be with the agency's comprehensive approach to anti-doping. For now, the Triple Crown season begins tomorrow with the usual fanfare and traditional mint juleps at Churchill Downs, but without one very familiar and polarizing horse trainer.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "REMEMBERANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.