Six things to know about death of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit

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Medina Spirit is walked on the track before participating in the 146th Preakness Stakes.
Medina Spirit is guided to the track before participating in the 146th Preakness Stakes in May. Medina Spirit collapsed and died Monday after a workout at Santa Anita Park. (Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

Horse racing once again found itself with unwelcome news when Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit died after a workout at Santa Anita on Monday morning. The 3-year-old colt was finishing a five-furlong workout when he slowed, staggered and then laid down just past the finish line. The incident was very consistent with a cardiovascular event, most commonly known as a heart attack.

Medina Spirit has been at the center of a swirling controversy in the industry after he tested positive for a legal medication, but not legal on race day, after winning the Derby. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has yet to hold a hearing against the horse and his trainer, Bob Baffert. It could lead to stripping the horse of the Kentucky Derby win and Baffert being fined and suspended.

As everyone tries to make sense of what happened, here are six things to think about as the situation unfolds.

Did Medina Spirit have an unfair Kentucky Derby advantage?

Jockey John Velazquez rides Medina Spirit across the finish line to win the Kentucky Derby.
Jockey John Velazquez rides Medina Spirit across the finish line to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on May 1. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

Probably not. The drug he tested positive for is an anti-inflammatory that is usually injected into a horse’s joints to ease stiffness and pain. The rules in Kentucky say a horse must be withdrawn from the medication 14 days before it runs. But in this case, Baffert and his attorneys say the medication was in an ointment that was being administered to the horse’s hind end for a rash. When the KHRC decides to file a complaint against Baffert, the outcome will probably rest on the difference between betamethasone acetate and betamethasone valerate. The trainer’s attorneys contend that they have proof that the horse only had valerate, which is found in ointments but not injections, in his system. They will claim the rule only applies to acetate. But a trainer is responsible for every aspect of a horse’s care, including medications, regardless of intent or mistakes. You can make a case either way as to how this will turn out.

Is it unusual for horses to die of heart attacks?

Exercise rider Humberto Gomez rides Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on May 12.
Exercise rider Humberto Gomez rides Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on May 12. (Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

No more than it is people dying of heart attacks after exercise. The controversy around horse racing deaths has been squarely pointed at muscular-skeletal deaths, more commonly known as breakdowns. The horse is actually a poorly constructed animal. If it needs surgery, it can’t be immobile for very long or it could suffer internal problems. If a leg has a problem that would result in them favoring other limbs, they can get a painful disease known as laminitis. The list goes on. Advancements in medicine have made a horse’s chance of survival greater after injury, but sometimes euthanasia is the best choice. A heart attack can just happen with no warning. Jeff Blea, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board, said it is discussing the idea of equipping on-track veterinarians with a defibrillator. He says more study is needed.

Why does it seem controversy always follows Bob Baffert?

Medina Spirit trainer Bob Baffert.
Medina Spirit trainer Bob Baffert. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

If you ask someone who knows little about horse racing to share the one name they know, it would be Baffert. His white hair and tinted glasses make him immediately recognizable and his outgoing personality is a plus. He’s also one of the most successful trainers in the game, having won the Kentucky Derby seven times. People like to take shots at the people on top, but that’s only one explanation. Recently, in a one-year period he had five medication violations, two of which were overturned and the pending Medina Spirit violation, which has made him a pariah, especially to those who oppose the sport. On Monday, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for his suspension from racing, something it has done before. Baffert actually has one of the best records when it comes to deaths the last three years with one horse dying when it was collided into by another and then Medina Spirit of a possible heart attack. By comparison, trainer Peter Miller, who just announced he was stepping back from training, has had six deaths in about a year. As for Baffert, he could ill afford something such as the death of Medina Spirit to happen, if for no other reason than perception.

When will we know the actual cause of death of Medina Spirit?

Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit is groomed and bathed.
Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit is groomed and bathed after a morning exercise at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on May 11. (Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

In cases which are called “sudden death” the necropsy, an autopsy done on animals, takes much longer because the cause of death is less clear than a broken bone. There are additional toxicology reports and a more thorough examination of the body. Blea could not put a time frame on how long it would take, but you can guess between two and three months. The CHRB will go to heightened measures to make sure there are no hiccups in the process. This is the most important necropsy it may ever do and with a reform-minded board, few stones will remain unturned.

Why was Medina Spirit still running?

Medina Spirit works out at Churchill Downs on April 28.
Medina Spirit works out at Churchill Downs on April 28. (Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

Most remember Baffert’s Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify, who retired after their 3-year-old campaigns. But, often the decision on if a horse goes beyond a successful 3-year-old is made because of the stud or stallion value of the horse. And that value is often tied to the value of the horse’s sire. Medina Spirit was sired by Protonico, whose stud fee is only $5,000. Authentic, Baffert’s 2020 Kentucky Derby winner who retired at 3, was sired by Into Mischief, who goes for $250,000 a mating. American Pharoah and Justify were automatically moved to the front of the line by winning the Triple Crown. Medina Spirit was being pointed toward running in the San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita on Dec. 26.

Will horse racing be damaged by this?

Horses compete in the $150,000 Evening Jewel Stakes at Santa Anita in May 2020.
Horses compete in the $150,000 Evening Jewel Stakes at Santa Anita in May 2020. (Associated Press)

The most likely answer is yes. The sport is constantly the subject of speculation as to how honest it is, especially by those who bet on it. It didn’t help when trainers Jason Servis, who conditioned Maximum Security, Jorge Navarro and 25 others were federally indicted in 2020 for various crimes including doping of their horses. Navarro has pleaded guilty, while Servis continues to fight the charges. The spike in deaths at Santa Anita in 2019 was the catalyst for increased scrutiny from outside the business and reform from within. While deaths have been greatly reduced in Southern California, thanks to measures by the CHRB and the Stronach Group, horses keep dying. This month, Laurel Race Track in Maryland has temporarily shut down after seven horses died in a short period of time. Regardless of the results of the Medina Spirit necropsy, and regardless of if there should be any blame, the temperature will be raised on the industry to keep horses from dying. How the sport will survive that, especially with other betting opportunities such as sports gambling, remains to be seen.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.