The 2021 Kentucky Derby winner, Medina Spirit, failed a drug check after the race, placing a brand new stain on a sport troubled by doping issues and inserting thoroughbred horse racing’s most recognizable persona, the Hall of Fame coach Bob Baffert, beneath uncomfortable scrutiny.
If he’s disqualified, Medina Spirit might be stripped of the Derby title and its successful purse, and develop into solely the third horse within the 147-year historical past of the race to obtain such a penalty after ending first. The colt can’t be disqualified till a second pattern, collected similtaneously the primary, confirms the end in a check anticipated within the coming weeks. Mr. Baffert will then have a chance to attraction.
The optimistic check comes as horse racing, acknowledging it has a drug downside, prepares to implement the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which was handed final 12 months in Congress. It will take impact July 1, 2022, and requires a board overseen by the Federal Trade Commission to put in writing guidelines and penalties to be enforced by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
The company, which regulates Olympic and different elite athletes within the United States, revealed the bicycle owner Lance Armstrong’s dishonest and issued him a lifetime suspension in 2012.
In a press release, officers at Churchill Downs, the racetrack in Louisville, Ky., mentioned that if Medina Spirit’s optimistic check was confirmed, the Derby’s runner-up, Mandaloun, could be declared the winner.
On Sunday, Churchill Downs officers suspended Mr. Baffert from getting into different horses there. It’s unclear how lengthy the suspension will final or the way it will have an effect on his standing within the sport. The officers mentioned they’d await the outcomes of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s investigation “before taking further steps” relating to Mr. Baffert’s suspension.
The drug present in Medina Spirit’s system was betamethasone, a corticosteroid injected into joints to scale back ache and swelling. In a information convention Sunday morning exterior his barn at Churchill Downs, Mr. Baffert mentioned neither he nor anybody else on his crew had administered the drug to Medina Spirit. He insisted the colt had not been handled with it.
He mentioned he meant to run Medina Spirit within the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of racing’s Triple Crown, on Saturday in Baltimore. Preakness officers mentioned they’d decide in regards to the colt’s eligibility after a overview of the details.
“I was totally shocked when I heard this news,” he mentioned. “I’m essentially the most scrutinized coach. And I’m OK with that. The very last thing I need to do is one thing that may jeopardize the best sport. I’m anxious in regards to the sport. This is a fairly severe accusation. We’re going to resolve it. We didn’t do it.
“There’s issues in racing. But it’s not Bob Baffert.”
Horse racing within the United States has lengthy had a tradition of medication and lax regulation and has a far greater charge of horses breaking down and being euthanized than in a lot of the world.
Trainers experiment with something which will give their horses an edge, together with chemical substances that bulk up pigs and cattle earlier than slaughter, cobra venom, Viagra, blood doping brokers, stimulants and most cancers medication. Detection is troublesome as laboratories scramble to maintain up.
Common medication such because the anti-inflammatory present in Medina Spirit pose the best threat to horse and rider. At greater ranges, ache medication can masks harm, rendering prerace examinations much less efficient. If a horse can’t really feel ache, it might run more durable than it in any other case would, placing additional stress on the harm.
The new regulation was a long time within the making. Many within the sport, seeing its profitability decline and anxious in regards to the public’s belief in it, urged Congress to create a central company with uniform guidelines and significant penalties. For now, every of the 38 states that allow horse racing regulate the game with a hodgepodge of guidelines.
Harsh punishments are uncommon. In 2011, one other well-known coach, Rick Dutrow, who gained the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes with Big Brown, was punished for doping violations just like Mr. Baffert’s. He was barred from racing within the United States for 10 years.
The Jockey Club, a number one business group that helped push the brand new regulation, mentioned in a press release that it was “troubled” by the report about Medina Spirit.
“Bettors and fans need to have unshakable confidence in the integrity of the sport,” the assertion mentioned.
With Medina Spirit’s victory on May 1, Mr. Baffert gained his seventh Kentucky Derby, surpassing a file set by Ben Jones, who collected his blankets of roses in 1938, 1941, 1944, 1948, 1949 and 1952.
At 12-to-1 odds, Medina Spirit was a shocking winner of America’s most well-known race. The colt was offered as a yearling for under $1,000 and was a discount for his present proprietor, Amr Zedan of Saudi Arabia, at $35,000.
The colt’s optimistic check provides to the questions surrounding Mr. Baffert. Regulators in Arkansas last month upheld a ruling that a banned substance had been found in two of his horses, but they decided to reduce his penalty from a suspension to a fine.
Medina Spirit tested positive for the same substance found last year in Mr. Baffert’s Gamine after the horse finished third in the Kentucky Oaks, a showcase for 3-year-old fillies held at Churchill Downs the day before the Derby. Gamine was disqualified, and her owners were denied the $120,000 purse for her third-place finish. Mr. Baffert was fined $1,500.
At stake for Mr. Zedan is the Derby’s $1.8 million first-place check, which would be awarded to the owners of Mandaloun. Bettors who backed Medina Spirit, however, would keep their winnings, while supporters of Mandaloun would be left with losing tickets.
Officials from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission did not respond to calls and emails for comment.
Mr. Baffert has gained the enmity of rivals who believe he has persistently cheated, suspicions fueled by 30 drug tests his horses have failed over four decades, including five in the last year or so.
The cases took months, if not years, to adjudicate and were met mostly with modest fines or brief suspensions as Mr. Baffert asserted he did nothing wrong and blamed environmental contamination or human error for the results. Still, deep-pocketed owners flock to Mr. Baffert’s stable.
In 2019, The New York Times reported that Justify, also trained by Mr. Baffert, had failed a drug test after winning the 2018 Santa Anita Derby in Southern California. The rule at the time required that Justify be disqualified, forfeiting his prize money and preventing his entry into the Kentucky Derby a month later.
The California Horse Racing Board’s chairman at the time, Chuck Winner, had employed Mr. Baffert to train his horses. Justify’s failed test was investigated for four months, allowing the horse to keep competing long enough to win not only the Derby, but also the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes to become the 13th Triple Crown winner. His postrace tests were clean in all three.
In August 2018, after Justify’s breeding rights had been sold for $60 million, the racing board’s medical director suggested the illegal substance might have been present in some jimsonweed the horse ate. The board disposed of the inquiry altogether during a rare closed-door session.
If Medina Spirit is disqualified, Mr. Baffert and the colt will join Maximum Security and Dancer’s Image as the only horses to have their Derby victories overturned.
In 2019, Maximum Security was first across the finish line, only to be disqualified for almost knocking over a rival horse in the far turn and slowing the momentum of others. The next year, Maximum Security’s trainer, Jason Servis, was among the 27 people charged by federal prosecutors in a wide-ranging scheme to secretly dope horses and cheat the betting public.
In 1968, Dancer’s Image’s victory was taken away after a drug test showed the presence of a banned anti-inflammatory.
Last year, facing criticism, Mr. Baffert apologized for his horses’ violations and promised to be more vigilant in the future.
“I am very aware of the several incidents this year concerning my horses and the impact it has had on my family, horse racing and me,” Mr. Baffert said in a statement. “I want to have a positive influence on the sport of horse racing. Horses have been my life, and I owe everything to them and the tremendous sport in which I have been so fortunate to be involved.”