Updated on 09/15/2011 12:26PM

Truth, justice, and a 60-day suspension


TUCSON - Unfortunately, they don't give Eclipse awards for courage under fire, but if they did this year's statuettes would go hands down to David Samuel and Tom Ward and Ingrid Fermin, stewards of the California Horse Racing Board.

Last Sunday, after an eight-day hearing in April and contemplation in May, the stewards suspended American racing's poster boy, trainer Bob Baffert, he of the snow white mane and quick and clever sound bite, for 60 days for a morphine positive in Nautical Look, a runner under his custody and control.

The action not only merited an award for bravery, but also for brevity. The race in which Nautical Look turned up positive took place at Hollywood Park on May 3, 2000, and the dispensation of justice in horse racing normally takes far longer than 13 months.

In New York State, for example, it took five years before the New York Racing and Wagering Board was able to muster the courage to take back the purse money won in New York by Flanders, who also tested positive and was trained by Baffert's rival, D. Wayne Lukas, and was owned by one of the truly untouchable great owners of the sport, William T. Young.

The California matter is far from over, of course. Baffert, who is banned from all licenses and license privileges and from access to any California tracks from June 25 through Aug. 23 under the stewards' order, is appealing, and there are all sorts of interesting tidbits to be sorted out.

For one thing, the stewards, despite their audacity in tampering with one of the sport's heroes, fudged on their decision. The administrative law judge in the matter, deputy attorney general Judith Seligman, representing the racing board, had recommended a six-month suspension and $10,000 fine, and the stewards' order did not approach that recommendation. It did not touch or mention the Baffert bank account, and opted for 60 days instead of 180.

For another, Baffert is represented by legendary California lawyer Neil Papiano, who toiled for Marje Everett when she ran Hollywood Park and Los Alamitos.

Papiano has based his case on a number of arguments, notably that the amount of morphine found in Nautical Look's postrace sample was so small that - as Papiano colorfully described - "if she lived to be 32 years old, it would amount to one breath in her lifetime." Unfortunately, that is one breath more than California's racing law allows.

Also muddying the waters of justice is the fact that along the way the racing board, agonized by the need for austerity, told its testing agent, Truesdail Laboratories, to throw out a third or so of the blood samples it was holding in storage, and among them was the blood of Nautical Look.

Finally, the old poppy seed argument was invoked; that is, Nautical Look ingested the morphine in her system from poppy seeds, which as everyone knows are prevalent in poppies, and apparently were prevalent in the Baffert stable through bagels and muffins consumed there, either by employees or, presumably, by Nautical Look.

So Baffert is appealing, and we will be subjected to poppy seeds and missing blood and infinitesimal amounts of prohibited substances for the foreseeable future. The only certainty is that Baffert will be on the scene and participating at California tracks and whatever others he chooses during the suspension period of June 25 through Aug. 23 and probably long afterward.

Regardless of what time he serves or doesn't serve, those three stewards still should be applauded for the gutsiest call of the year, and the fact that it didn't take them five years to make it.