A Triple Crown-sized black eye for horse racing, and Bob Baffert is involved again

·4 min read

This couldn’t look much worse.

Horse racing’s most famous event, the Kentucky Derby. Horse racing’s most famous trainer, Bob Baffert. A positive drug test. A Baffert horse. Again.

The news hit like a thunderbolt Sunday morning, that Medina Spirit, the 12-1 shot who won last Saturday’s 147th running of the Kentucky Derby, giving Baffert a record seventh triumph in the event, had tested positive for an overage of betamethasone, a corticosteroid injected into joints to reduce pain and swelling.

Medina Spirit isn’t disqualified. Not yet. The stewards at Churchill Downs are following the proper protocol, submitting a split sample to see if the positive test is confirmed by an outside body. If so, Baffert has the right to appeal the ruling.

Still, it is Baffert’s history that is the problem here. In a little more than the past year, the trainer’s horses have already tested positive five times, according to the New York Times. Just last year, Baffert was fined after two of his horses, Gamine and Charlatan, tested positive on Arkansas Derby day.

Outside his barn at Churchill Downs on Sunday morning, Baffert denied that anyone in his barn had given the drug to Medina Spirit, who had won just one of four races in 2021, though the son of Protonico had never finished worse than second.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of this,” Baffert said. “We didn’t do it.”

Churchill Downs did not wait for the investigation to play out before taking action. The racetrack suspended Baffert from racing horses at Churchill until a ruling comes down “given the seriousness of the alleged offense.”

What does this mean for the Preakness? Can the officials at Pimlico Race Course allow the Kentucky Derby winner to compete in Saturday’s second jewel of the Triple Crown now that a positive test — and a suspension in Louisville — hangs over Baffert and Medina Spirit?

Preakness officials said Sunday they are investigating the matter. Originally scheduled for Monday, the post position draw for the race has been pushed back to Tuesday. The Daily Racing Form reported Monday that Baffert attorney Craig Robertson is prepared to file a temporary restraining order if Medina Spirit is not allowed to run in the Preakness.

Baffert said Monday he will not be going to Baltimore. “I don’t want to be a distraction,” said the trainer.

More importantly, what does this mean for horse racing? Just once in Kentucky Derby history has the winner been disqualified for a positive drug test. That was in 1968 with Dancer’s Image. Runner-up Forward Pass was declared the winner. But a series of legal challenges lasted years until finally the original DQ was finally upheld.

And we’re just two years removed from the controversial 2019 Kentucky Derby in which winner Maximum Security was taken down by the stewards because of interference during the race. Country House was declared the winner.

Maximum Security was then trained by Jason Servis, who just last year was indicted for allegedly administering PEDs to his horses. In an ironic twist, owner Gary West moved Maximum Security to Baffert’s barn.

Suspicions and rumors have followed Baffert his entire career. Part of that is because Baffert wins, and wins big, often in the biggest races. In 2015, he became the first trainer in 37 years to saddle a Triple Crown winner (American Pharoah). And three years later, he repeated the feat with Justify. He has won the Kentucky Derby twice in a row — Authentic won in 2020 — and four times in the last seven years. His seventh Derby win broke Ben A. Jones’ long-standing record.

But Baffert keeps giving his critics every right to be suspicious. His horses have tested positive over 30 times since the mid-1990s when he stopped training quarter horses to move up to the more lucrative Thoroughbred game. With his most recent proliferation of positives, the trainer promised to be more vigilant about what was happening in his barn. But now, this.

We’re also in an era in which there is more focus on cleaning up the sport. Just last week, board members were named to the new Horse Racing Safety and Integrity Act, passed by Congress to establish a national review entity that would make rules more uniform and the sport safer.

This Kentucky Derby was the first to be run in which the 3-year-old colts were not allowed to be administered Lasix on race day. Lasix is a drug that can prohibit the bleeding that happens when horses run. As a way of phasing in the new Lasix rule, the 2021 Kentucky Derby colts were prohibited from using Lasix in graded stakes as 2-year-olds in 2020.

Had the Kentucky Derby been won by a different horse with a different trainer, Sunday’s news might not have had the same impact. But this is Bob Baffert. The best trainer in the sport. With a history of positive tests in his background.

No matter the outcome, it couldn’t look much worse.

Preakness Stakes

What: 146th running of the second leg of Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown

When: 6:45 p.m. Saturday

Where: Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md.

TV: NBC-18

Purse: $1 million

Distance: 1 3/16 miles

For: 3-year-old Thoroughbreds

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