Commentary: Cutting the Arkansas Racing Commission’s Gordian Knot
There is not much about this situation with the Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC) and Bob Baffert that appears “good” for the sport of horse racing. This week, the news broke that the HOF trainer’s horses, namely Charlatan and Gamine, would have their “wins” restored in both the Arkansas Derby and an Allowance race at Oaklawn Park, respectively. The fine Baffert received would stand, but his 15-day suspension was lifted.
Just in case you were unaware, those events took place during what would have been Kentucky Derby Day 146 on the “First Saturday in May” 2020, if it had not been postponed due to COVID-19. This ordeal, and I think at this point that is an apt term, seems to have vacillated somewhere between the rule of law and the theater of the absurd.
One has to wonder, if this all would have gone the way it did were it not for the presence of one of the world’s most famous trainers? To put it another way, did the high-profile nature of these cases make for a situation where there could never be a resolution that made sense? Let’s come back to those questions here shortly . . .
Proving intended bias is difficult to do in any situation, especially when the testing of drugs is involved. Not to get into all of the particulars because they are complex and rather muddled, and if you are really keen (or bored), you could easily go back and re-watch the proceedings that surrounded this case over the past few days. The long and the short of it is, rules were written down in the service of good governance, and for some mysterious reason, the ARC chose to interpret them very differently. Then, they tried to reinterpret them . . . and then, they tried to reinterpret them, yet again.
If you set aside all the minutia of what an out-of-state Floridian lab did when, or the responses of Baffert’s Legal Team to these accusations said at this point or that, what is most deplorable about this situation is the indecision by a body of supposed “experts.” That is really where the failure over these multiple rounds of rulings resides. It is the nature of “interpretation” to be subjected to “tests” over time. When you play politics instead of staying the course, positions shift with the winds. Confidence in the system can lose all credibility.
The shillyshallying that took place over the course of this past year . . . the lack of an authoritative ruling from the get-go, seemed to void all hope for a swift conclusion. The ARC acted like they were cutting a Gordian Knot, using all manner of sharp and blunt instruments that were at their disposal. You know about these types of conundrums; sometimes the simplest answer is actually the best. Just yesterday, Commission Chair Alex Lieblong, tossed more kindling on this blaze in the service of making the situation even more untenable when he said, “We get rules thrown at us and those are the rules. We're all under the microscope because whatever we come up with, it will be controversial. That's the state of the game right now.”
I fundamentally disagree with that opinion. Is he really using the “dammed if we do, and dammed if we don’t” argument? Specious reasoning to say the least, especially when debates continue to rage over the validity of a National Horseracing Authority (through the recent passage of the HISA) that can act as an independent weigh station for all things testing-related.
Maybe all we can say . . . is that over the course of nearly a year, the ARC bungled what was a major opportunity to assert a position that their state has maintained valiantly. That being, “we can take care of our own business,” and “local problems can be solved by local people.” Now, it seems, more than ever, that Lieblong and his cohorts have handed the HISA the keys to the car.
Lieblong dug an even deeper grave for local authority when he said, “I know it's not healthy, but like I say, the federal government sounds like they're riding to the rescue to straighten it all out.” Did he really offer that too? The ability to govern oneself hinges on production. The ARC did not make a swift and decisive set of moves when it came to the case against Bob Baffert’s runners. They went in with one boot off, in an attempt to parry risk, and probably with the hope, like a clock, could be correct at least once during daylight hours.
If this situation was a test case, a metaphorical Gordian Knot, and we are looking for a reason to support federal oversight for drug testing in the sport of Thoroughbred racing, then the path is clear. The state’s inability to see this through, concertedly and succinctly, conjures more support for intervention. Maybe the fact that Bob Baffert was involved, America’s most celebrated trainer, shook the very foundations of the Arkansas bedrock. It exposed its weaknesses, its fissures, and created a moment where defenders of the so-called “Faith” were befuddled and tongue-tied.
Maybe the members of the ARC, and the detractors of HISA should hear the words of Mark Twain when he said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Perhaps all of us connected to Thoroughbred racing would do well to remember that doing what is seemingly difficult, doesn’t have to be so complicated. The realization of the HISA is near, and then it is time to cut that Gordian Knot.