The stakes are high at the 146th running of the Preakness Stakes this Saturday. Not just for the horses, trainers, jockeys, stable hands and owners. Not just for the Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico Race Course, home of the second jewel in racing’s Triple Crown. And not just for average gamblers placing $2 wagers. The big bet is the nearly $400 million that is being spent to redevelop both Pimlico, and in the process help revitalize neighboring Northwest Baltimore. Most of the money, which is also being used to overhaul a sister track, Laurel Park, is a loan backed by future gambling revenues, so it’s hardly a stretch to call this project taxpayer-backed, as those same government proceeds could easily have gone to other purposes.
Under the circumstances, it’s easy to get a little nervous. As they say in poker, if you can’t tell who the sucker at the table is, you’re it. And this week’s focus in Park Heights isn’t so much about Pimlico’s glorious future as horse racing’s embarrassing past. In this case, its drug use. Medina Spirit, winner of the Kentucky Derby, has tested positive for the anti-inflammatory drug betamethasone. This may yet cause the horse to lose its Derby title, but it won’t keep Medina Spirit from running in Saturday’s big race, or another horse also trained by Bob Baffert named Concert Tour, as long as they pass “blood testing, monitoring and medical record review.”
We will leave it to sports scribes to provide all the ins and outs of performance-enhancing drugs, of how the drug may have been administered and of Mr. Baffert’s checkered past in this regard. But it appears that those involved with Medina Spirit are getting off pretty easy. When a pro football or baseball player is found to have used steroids, for example, the consequences are more severe. Suspension, discipline, fines are often involved. One can no more imagine a human athlete being allowed to compete at his sport’s most important event two weeks after a failed test, then getting a pay raise from the team owner. And getting caught using a drug banned from use on racing days seems cruel, as well. The horse had no choice in the matter. There’s an animal abuse element to it.
Why isn’t there already a settled national policy on what to do about this kind of potential cheating? There are some new rules coming down the pike from Washington: The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act signed into law shortly after Christmas, is supposed to set uniform rules about drug use in racing with results that are government supervised. But those requirements don’t go into effect until next summer. Right now, the rules are just sort of being made up as things move along. We might have rolled our eyes over such nonsense in years past. When there’s $400 million on the table, we are less forgiving.
Make no mistake, renovating Pimlico still makes sense. Despite this year’s pandemic-diminished showing, the Preakness still has value (an estimated $50 million annually to the local economy in normal times) and retaining it in Baltimore — at a facility that is sustainable and inviting to visitors — could prove a bargain in the long run. The Maryland horse industry is a $1.3 billion business. Being part of the Triple Crowns pays enormous dividends. But that’s only if racing retains some semblance of integrity and fan base. In case no one has noticed, gamblers have far more choices than they did just a few years ago including online sports wagering on any number of events. If horse racing can’t be trusted to be clean, what hope is there for its future?
Instead of going on talk shows and complaining about “cancel culture” or even blaming the use of a vet-recommended antifungal ointment called Otomax that may have caused the positive result, Mr. Baffert and his allies should have shown greater concern. He might, for example, have offered to voluntarily relinquish his horse’s Derby title if the positive test holds up and withdraw from the Preakness. This is what honorable people do, what a true “sport of kings” would compel. And this is what taxpayers risking hundreds of millions of dollars expect from an industry that needs to clean up its act.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.