As Thoroughbred Racing Looks to Recover Splendor, a Derby Drug Scandal Looms

Credit: Jim Thompson/Thompson Sports Toons, used with permission

Last Saturday, the First Saturday in May, there was a mild surprise at the Kentucky Derby when a field of tightly gathered favorites gave way to Medina Spirit, who went off at 12-1. With more focus placed on a handful of other horses, the one entry from famed trainer Bob Baffert was essentially overlooked, and when he came across the wire even Baffert was notably surprised at the finish. Now, a week later, Baffert — and that result — are under scrutiny.

Word comes out today that test results have shown that Medina Spirit has tested positive for elevated levels of the steroid betamethasone. As the investigation goes on currently, Baffert finds himself suspended from further racing at Churchill Downs, and the status of his horse in next week’s second leg of the Triple Crown, The Preakness Stakes, is in question. The results are murky and it throws off whatever good grace the sport has managed to receive as it recovers from a series of bad news over the past few years.

Part of the reason this is not an instant disqualification is that this particular steroid is permitted in horses, but the measured levels are regulated. Mostly it is administered as an anti-inflammatory treatment, permissible in doses during training but expected to leave the system by race time. The samples revealed higher than permitted levels in Medina Spirit, while Bob Baffert is claiming they have given none to the horse at all in the prep for The Derby.

Not helping his cause is the fact that Baffert was fined already for this same drug last fall, seeing his third-place finishing horse Gamine disqualified after The Kentucky Oaks. One thing that still allows for variables is that it does seem a surprising drug result in such a high-profile race. With so much focus on The Kentucky Derby, and Baffert a Hall Of Fame trainer, it seems out of place to have this type of return. Yet Baffert has himself been cited a handful of times over the past year, as the sport has toughened its analysis on horses.

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Over the years, a surprising number of horses have been breaking down, in particular at one track — the Santa Anita Park. There, at least twenty horses had to be put down in the summer of 2019, and three others also were put down during the filming of the HBO series “Lucky” on location. This and other issues in the sport have led to increased calls for tougher oversight, including a federal commission going into effect next year, which will take a very similar stance to thoroughbred racing as it does with drug testing Olympic athletes.

This Derby development is likely a confluence of two competing factors: Baffert and others may be coming to terms with practices now forbidden which previously had been permissible, as well as horse racing’s long history similar to the unwritten maxim from NASCAR — if you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’. The increased oversight and the long-standing rule-bending in the sport are coming to terms, as it were. 

This is only the halfway point in this particular story. The current testing methods include taking multiple samples of both blood and urine to be drawn from the horses following the race. A Colorado lab came up with the steroid levels after testing both types of samples, and as is the standard, the second batch of tests will be performed by a second independent lab with the additional samples that were drawn. It is unusual for this news to emerge prior to a second testing, but the new standards and the ever-intense intense focus on Baffert likely provoked the leaks.

Reflecting the toughened nature of thoroughbred racing, Churchill Downs officials released a stern statement.

To be clear, if the findings are upheld, Medina Spirit’s results in the Kentucky Derby will be invalidated and Mandaloun will be declared the winner. Churchill Downs will not tolerate it. Given the seriousness of the alleged offense, Churchill Downs will immediately suspend Bob Baffert, the trainer of Medina Spirit, from entering any horses at Churchill Downs Racetrack.”

The suspension, for now, holds no timeframe. Following the second round of clinical tests, Baffert, and the owners of Medina Spirit, will go through a period of due process within the sport. If the positive test is upheld, then the ownership group will be forfeiting the winnings from The Derby. That $1.8 million payout would then be made to the second-place finisher, Mandaloun.

Last year, a sweeping investigation indicted dozens of prominent trainers, vets, and medical experts, mostly involving doping of horses to a degree intended to evade the increased drug-testing standards. As the oversight authorities strive to catch up to the evolving efforts made behind closed stable doors it is going to be watched intently to find out how much Baffert was in the know.

One horseman looking at the story, Chris Brown, offered this observation on the matter and on Baffert, reflecting on his recent issues with the drug at issue.

Baffert declared he wanted to be fully transparent on the matter, though when asked if he would release the veterinary reports to the public, the trainer hedged. “I’ll release them to the KHRC,” he explained, referring to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.