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‘A black eye’: Horse racing world grapples with doping controversy centered on its biggest star, Bob Baffert

It’s the white hair, the ever-present sunglasses and the wins — so many wins.

For many casual fans, Bob Baffert is modern horse racing, the one face they recognize in a sport that’s slipped from everyday consciousness. The Kentucky Derby is the one race every thoroughbred trainer and owner dreams of winning; Baffert has captured it a record seven times since 1997. The Triple Crown was the feat some historians regarded as a relic of the past, until Baffert won it with American Pharoah in 2015 and again with Justify in 2018.

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He seemed to add another chapter to his legend May 1, when a modestly talented colt named Medina Spirit, who sold for a paltry $1,000 as a yearling, held off 18 challengers to deliver another Derby triumph. But this chapter took a dark turn Sunday when Baffert announced that Medina Spirit had tested positive for the anti-inflammatory drug betamethasone, a result that will cost him his victory if a split-sample test confirms it.

Churchill Downs, the home of the Derby, quickly suspended Baffert, and those casual fans who’ve cheered the trainer’s victories became aware of the doping allegations that have hovered around him in recent years.

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Suddenly, the face of the sport also was the face of the complex issues that ail it.

“It gives horse racing a black eye,” said NBC analyst Randy Moss, who has covered the sport for more than 40 years. “Horse racing already has so many bullet holes in its feet from self-inflicted wounds that it’s amazing it’s as healthy as it is. This certainly doesn’t help.”

Moss sees several layers to the story, which still is unfolding as Baffert awaits word on a disqualification in Kentucky and prepares his horse for a Preakness Stakes run that might or might not happen.

Baffert, he said, must face punishment if the split-sample test shows he was careless in administering medication to Medina Spirit. At the same time, Moss said Medina Spirit should be allowed to run in the Preakness and that fans should understand the unlikelihood of Baffert using a tiny amount of the anti-inflammatory drug as a performance enhancer.

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“The problem right now facing horse racing is that for noble reasons, the sport is trying to protect the animals and at the same time, protect its customers,” he said. “They’re doing their damnedest to try to get medication out of the race-day environment. But the testing is so sensitive that the sport has yet to be able to come to grips with exactly what that means. The thought that Medina Spirit shouldn’t be allowed to run in the Preakness, because he had 21 trillionths of a gram of approved therapeutic medication in his system, is just patently unfair.”

This is not a new story within the racing world, where failed drug tests for horses such as Justify, Gamine and Charlatan put an uncomfortable spotlight on Baffert in recent years.

Maryland-based trainer Graham Motion, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom and has competed against Baffert in many big races, said he was distressed to see the sport’s deep issues with doping bubble up around its most prominent race.

“I would like to be optimistic about our sport but today we are an embarrassment,” Motion wrote Sunday on Twitter in a post he did not intend as a direct criticism of Baffert. “Perhaps we have to hit rock bottom before things get better, but we only have ourselves and the leaders of our sport to blame. For anyone that loves the sport as much as I do, it’s a sad day.”

Trainer Bob Baffert of Medina Spirit raises the trophy after winning the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby, his seventh career victory in the race, at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Trainer Bob Baffert of Medina Spirit raises the trophy after winning the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby, his seventh career victory in the race, at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America/TNS)

Baffert said Medina Spirit was never treated with betamethasone and promised to fight this “injustice” as he did with past medication violations by some of his prominent champions. His appeals of past doping penalties — in which he’s blamed environmental contamination, unreliable handling of evidence and other factors — have often succeeded.

Justify, for example, kept his victory in the 2018 Santa Anita Derby after Baffert successfully argued that a positive test for the anti-nausea drug scopolamine was caused by jimson weed in the future Triple Crown winner’s feed. In Arkansas, racing officials recently restored victories to Charlatan and Gamine and wiped away a 15-day suspension for Baffert, who argued that positive tests for the painkiller lidocaine might have been caused by a patch worn by his assistant, Jimmy Barnes.

Baffert has consistently painted himself as the victim of a broken system in which rules vary from state to state and doping violations can be triggered by minuscule traces of medications, such as betamethasone, that are permitted for therapeutic use.

“I’m worried about our sport,” he said when asked if he fears damage to his reputation. “Our sport has taken a lot of hits. These are pretty serious accusations here, but we’re going to get to the bottom of it. We know we didn’t do it.”

Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit relaxes in the Stakes barn after arriving at Pimlico Race Course Monday.
Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit relaxes in the Stakes barn after arriving at Pimlico Race Course Monday. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Baffert was concerned enough about the previous medication violations from his barn that in November, he hired an outside consultant, Kentucky-based veterinarian Michael Hore, to provide oversight. He said Sunday that he’ll conduct his own investigation into what happened with Medina Spirit and will be “transparent” in sharing information with Kentucky regulators.

On Monday, Baffert’s attorney, W. Craig Robertson III, told the Daily Racing Form that Churchill Downs violated due process by suspending the trainer before Medina Spirit’s split sample could be tested. He said he would file for a temporary restraining order if Preakness officials issue a similar suspension.

Also on Monday, Baffert said he would not accompany his horses, Medina Spirit and Concert Tour, to the Preakness. Medina Spirit arrived at Pimlico Race Course on Monday afternoon.

“I don’t want to be a distraction,” he said in a text. “It’s all about the horses.”

The sport has wrestled with these issues for decades. Though Medina Spirit would be just the second horse to lose a Derby victory to a drug test, it’s difficult to find a prominent trainer who has not been penalized for a doping violation at some point.

Dr. Dan Dreyfuss, who served as a racetrack veterinarian in Maryland for 27 years, said trainers are right to be concerned about the remarkable sensitivity of modern testing. At the same time, he added, rules are rules.

“Without speaking directly to one horse, [betamethasone] is a potent anti-inflammatory when used in joints, so it has the ability to make a joint feel better,” Dreyfuss said. “Is it performance enhancing in terms of taking a $5,000 claimer and making him a Kentucky Derby winner? No. But it certainly has the potential to make the horse travel better because of its anti-inflammatory effects.”

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When asked about Baffert, he said: “If it were a first offense, I would have a very different viewpoint than I do given the fact that he’s been prominent in the news because of similar-type offenses.”

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Anti-doping activists and racing officials are pinning their hopes on the Horse Racing Safety and Integrity Act, which became law in December and will create an independent, nongovernmental authority to patrol doping under a uniform federal policy. It will not take effect until July 2022.

Marty Irby, executive director of the nonprofit Animal Wellness Action, pointed to Medina Spirit’s medical violation as another example underscoring the need for federal oversight.

“If further investigation finds Medina Spirit legitimately tested positive for illegal drugs at the Kentucky Derby, then racing authorities should throw the book at those found guilty of violating the rules and punish them to the fullest extent of the law,” he said. “American horse racing will be held to a higher standard — there’s no excuse for rigging the ‘fastest two minutes in sports,’ especially at the expense of the horse’s well-being.”

For now, powerful entities within the sport — including The Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park — are attempting their own crackdown by prohibiting the widely used anti-bleeding drug Lasix at races such as the Derby and Preakness.

Medina Spirit’s positive test has thrust Preakness organizers into a difficult position ahead of Saturday’s race. Do they ban Medina Spirit for the possible missteps of his trainer, which might or might not have aided his performance in the Derby? Or do they let him run and anger critics of the sport who say there’s insufficient accountability for major figures such as Baffert?

“They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” Moss said.

146TH PREAKNESS STAKES

Saturday, 6:45 p.m. post time

TV: Chs. 11, 4 (4:30 p.m.)

Triple Crown series: Belmont, June 5

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