Medina Spirit’s positive drug test after the Kentucky Derby has been confirmed, setting the stage for the colt trained by Bob Baffert to be the second horse in the 147-year history of the race to be disqualified as its winner because of a failed drug test.
Citing the positive test, Churchill Downs on Wednesday immediately suspended Baffert, a seven-time winner of the Derby and the most recognizable figure in the sport, from entering horses at the racetrack in Louisville, Ky., for two years. That means that no horse trained by Baffert or his stable can race in the Derby in 2022 and 2023.
“Reckless practices and substance violations that jeopardize the safety of our equine and human athletes or compromise the integrity of our sport are not acceptable,” Bill Carstanjen, chief executive of Churchill Downs, said on Wednesday. “Mr. Baffert’s record of testing failures threatens public confidence in thoroughbred racing and the reputation of the Kentucky Derby.”
Clark Brewster, a lawyer who represents Medina Spirit’s owner, Amr Zedan, said a laboratory at the University of California, Davis, tested a second postrace sample from the Derby. The test confirmed the presence, at a prohibited level, of the drug betamethasone, a corticosteroid that is injected into joints to reduce pain and swelling. Baffert chose the lab where the sample was tested.
In a text message, however, Brewster said the laboratory did not test the blood or urine samples for the presence of other compounds, “which could prove the trace positive came from an inadvertent and materially inconsequential contamination sourced from a topical ointment used to treat Medina Spirit for a skin lesion on his hip.”
Immediately after announcing Medina Spirit’s positive test on May 9, Baffert gave a series of television and radio interviews in which he floated various theories about how the colt tested positive for betamethasone. He blamed “cancel culture” for the controversy and said racing officials were out to get him.
Baffert soon reversed himself, however, and acknowledged treating Medina Spirit for a rash with an antifungal ointment called Otomax, which, to Baffert’s professed surprise, contains betamethasone.
On Wednesday, Churchill Downs cited Baffert’s “increasingly extraordinary explanations” as a reason for suspending him.
Brewster said the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has agreed to send the original blood and urine tests to an independent and accredited laboratory for analysis to determine whether the specimens contain other components proving the source to be the topical ointment.
A possible disqualification is months away and destined to be tied up in the courts for years. First, racing officials will conduct a hearing and issue a ruling. If they disqualify Medina Spirit and either suspend or fine Baffert, he could appeal to the full commission. If the unfavorable ruling is still not overturned, he could pursue a remedy in civil court.
If Medina Spirit is disqualified, Zedan will forfeit the more than $1.8 million first-place check he earned when his horse crossed the finish line first. In 1968, the Derby victory of Dancer’s Image was taken away after a drug test showed the presence of a banned anti-inflammatory. It took four years before Dancer’s Image was irrevocably disqualified.
“If it was inadvertent contamination, that should be taken into account,” Brewster said in a telephone interview. “We’re hopeful that reasonable minds and good-intentioned regulators can see what it is, and what it is not, and not have a draconian response.”
Brewster, who breeds and owns horses, said the commission had abandoned disqualifications in previous cases when it found mitigating circumstances.
Neither Baffert nor his lawyer, W. Craig Robertson III, returned requests to comment.
In an email, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission declined to comment on the results of the second sample.
“The K.H.R.C. is not going to be providing comment or updates on the status of this ongoing investigation,” Sherelle Roberts, the spokeswoman, said. “We will provide information when the entire matter is complete.”
Baffert earned the ire of Churchill Downs officials who had made it clear that if a second sample confirmed the presence of the drug, Medina Spirit would be disqualified and Mandaloun, the runner-up, would be declared the Derby winner.
The Medina Spirit controversy comes as horse racing, acknowledging it has a drug problem, prepares to implement the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which was passed last year in Congress. It will take effect July 1, 2022, and calls for a board overseen by the Federal Trade Commission to write rules and penalties to be enforced by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
The agency, which regulates Olympic and other elite athletes in the United States, revealed the cyclist Lance Armstrong’s cheating and issued him a lifetime suspension in 2012.
In the span of four weeks during racing’s Triple Crown season, Baffert has gone from being the garrulous and voluble face of horse racing to a mostly silent poster boy for what is wrong with the sport.
For 25 years, New York City has been Baffert’s kind of town, and Belmont Park has been the racetrack that made him the most famous thoroughbred trainer in America. Five times, he has brought the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner for the Test of the Champion, as the Belmont Stakes is known, with a Triple Crown hanging in the balance.
With American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018, Baffert completed the sweep of the sport’s holy grail and left the city a conquering hero, bringing renewed attention to an often-forgotten sport. Over the years, he has thrown out the ceremonial first pitch at a Mets game, dined in Manhattan’s finest restaurants and good-naturedly accepted the heckles and hurrahs from the Big Apple’s impassioned horseplayers.
For the 153rd running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, though, Baffert will be in California after the New York Racing Association barred him from running his horses at state tracks because of Medina Spirit’s failed test. He has been shut out of one of the biggest days in horse racing.
Baffert’s two-year suspension from Churchill Downs is a significant blow to his business. He has been synonymous with the Derby, and his success in Triple Crown races has attracted an international cast of deep-pocketed owners willing to buy expensive thoroughbreds. Now, with Baffert unable to compete on American racing’s grandest stage, these owners will have to give their horses to other trainers.
While track operators in New York and at Churchill Downs have refused to allow him to enter his horses, his powerful stable continues to dominate races in California. He is the leading trainer at Santa Anita Park’s current meet with more than $3.6 million in earnings. The track is owned by the Stronach Group, which also owns Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and allowed Medina Spirit to race in the Preakness Stakes there after passing expanded drug testing.
The California Horse Racing Board said in a statement that like their counterparts in New York and Kentucky, their hands were tied until Medina Spirit’s second sample was confirmed and a complaint was filed against Baffert.
“They face the same issue the C.H.R.B. does in that regulators cannot suspend or revoke occupational licenses without a hearing and due process,” the statement said. “Should any regulatory body take action against any licensee, we would reciprocate that action in California.”
Baffert is also the target of a couple of class-action suits brought by bettors.
Michael Beychok, the handicapper who won the 2012 National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s National Horseplayers Championship, filed a suit last month alleging that Baffert and Zedan doped the colt and committed fraud to win the Derby.
Beychok said he had made $966 in bets that would have earned him payoffs between $10,000 and $100,000 had Medina Spirit not won the race, according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Three other horseplayers joined the suit, claiming they stood to make up to $40,000 if the Baffert colt had not finished first.
Beychok and his fellow plaintiffs argue that Baffert and Zedan are in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and the California Control of Profits of Organized Crime Act.
In addition, the recent death of Noodles, a 2-year-old unraced colt in Baffert’s care, has rekindled the interest of animal rights activists in Baffert and horse racing. A necropsy will be performed and a fatality review conducted pursuant to California regulations.
In 2013, after seven horses in Baffert’s care died over a 16-month period, he was the subject of a report by California regulators, which revealed he had been giving every horse in his barn a thyroid hormone without checking to see if any of them had thyroid problems.
Baffert told the investigators that he thought the medication would help “build up” his horses even though the drug is generally associated with weight loss. In that case, the board’s report found no evidence “that C.H.R.B. rules or regulations have been violated.”
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 Baffert asserted he did nothing wrong and blamed environmental contamination or human error for the results. Still, deep-pocketed owners flocked to Baffert’s stable.
In 2019, The New York Times reported that Justify, also trained by 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 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, 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 27 people charged by federal prosecutors in a wide-ranging scheme to secretly dope horses and cheat the betting public.