Medina Spirit's Positive Drug Test Confirmed.
Churchill Downs has placed a two-year suspension on the colt's trainer, Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, and the colt faces disqualification as the Derby winner.
Medina Spirit's positive drug test following the Kentucky Derby has been confirmed, paving the way for the colt trained by Bob Baffert to become the race's second winner to be disqualified due to a failed drug test in the race's 147-year history.
Churchill Downs immediately suspended Baffert, a seven-time Derby winner and the sport's most recognizable figure, from entering horses at the Louisville, Ky., racetrack for two years, citing the positive test. This means that in 2022 and 2023, no horse trained by Baffert or his stable will be eligible to race in the Derby.
“Ignorant practices and substance violations that endanger the safety of our equine and human athletes or jeopardize the integrity of our sport are not acceptable,” Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said on Wednesday. “Mr. Baffert's track record of testing failures jeopardizes public confidence in thoroughbred racing and the Kentucky Derby's reputation.”
Clark Brewster, a lawyer representing Medina Spirit's owner, Amr Zedan, stated that a second post-race sample from the Derby was tested by a laboratory at the University of California, Davis. The test confirmed the presence of betamethasone, a corticosteroid that is injected into joints to relieve pain and swelling, at a prohibited level. Baffert selected the laboratory that tested the sample.
Brewster, however, stated in a text message that the laboratory did not test the blood or urine samples for the presence of other compounds, “which could establish that the trace positive resulted from an inadvertent and materially insignificant contamination sourced from a topical ointment used to treat Medina Spirit's skin lesion on his hip.”
Baffert conducted a series of television and radio interviews shortly after announcing Medina Spirit's positive test on May 9 in which he floated various theories about how the colt tested positive for betamethasone. He blamed the controversy on "cancel culture" and claimed racing officials were out to get him.
Baffert quickly reversed his position and admitted treating Medina Spirit for a rash with an antifungal ointment called Otomax, which contains betamethasone, much to Baffert's surprise.
Churchill Downs suspended Baffert on Wednesday, citing his "increasingly extraordinary explanations."
Brewster stated that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has agreed to send the original blood and urine tests to an independent, accredited laboratory for analysis to determine whether the specimens contain additional components establishing the topical ointment as the source.
A potential disqualification is months away and is destined to drag on for years in the courts. To begin, officials from the racing industry will hold a hearing and issue a ruling. If the commission disqualifies Medina Spirit and suspends or fines Baffert, he has the right to appeal to the full commission. If the adverse ruling is not reversed, he may seek redress in civil court.
Zedan will forfeit the more than $1.8 million first-place check he earned when his horse crossed the finish line first if Medina Spirit is disqualified. In 1968, Dancer's Image's Derby victory was revoked after a drug test revealed the presence of a banned anti-inflammatory. After four years, Dancer's Image was permanently disqualified.
“If contamination occurred accidentally, that should be considered,” Brewster said in a telephone interview. “We're hopeful that reasonable minds and well-intentioned regulators will recognize what it is and is not and refrain from a draconian response.”
Brewster, who breeds and owns horses, stated that the commission had previously abandoned disqualifications when mitigating circumstances were discovered.
Baffert and his attorney, W. Craig Robertson III, did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokeswoman for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission declined to comment on the second sample's results via email.
“The K.H.R.C. will not provide comment or updates on the status of this ongoing investigation,” spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said. “We will provide information once the matter has been resolved.”
Baffert incurred the wrath of Churchill Downs officials, who had made it clear that if a second sample confirmed the presence of the banned substance, Medina Spirit would be disqualified and Mandaloun, the Derby runner-up, would be declared the winner.
The Medina Spirit controversy comes as horse racing prepares to implement the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which was passed by Congress last year. It takes effect on July 1, 2022, and establishes a board overseen by the Federal Trade Commission that will write rules and penalties that will be enforced by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
The agency, which regulates Olympic and other elite athletes in the United States, exposed Lance Armstrong's cheating in 2012 and suspended him for life.
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 in the space of four weeks during racing's Triple Crown season.
For 25 years, New York City has been Baffert's home, and Belmont Park has been the racetrack that catapulted him to prominence as America's most famous thoroughbred trainer. He has brought the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes five times to the Test of the Champion, as the Belmont Stakes is known, with the Triple Crown on the line.
With American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018, Baffert completed the sweep of the sport's holy grail and left the city as a conquering hero, reintroducing an often-forgotten sport to a new generation. He has thrown out the ceremonial first pitch at a Mets game, dined at Manhattan's finest restaurants, and humbly accepted the heckles and hurrahs of the Big Apple's fervent horseplayers over the years.
Baffert, on the other hand, will be in California for Saturday's 153rd running of the Belmont Stakes after the New York Racing Association barred him from running his horses at state tracks following Medina Spirit's failed test. He has been excluded from one of the most significant days in horse racing.
Baffert's business has taken a significant hit as a result of his two-year suspension from Churchill Downs. He has become synonymous with the Derby, and his victories in the Triple Crown have attracted an international cast of wealthy owners willing to purchase expensive thoroughbreds. Now that Baffert is unable to compete on the grandest stage of American racing, these owners will be forced to give their horses to other trainers.
While New York and Churchill Downs track operators have refused to allow him to enter his horses, his powerful stable continues to dominate California races. With over $3.6 million in earnings, he is the leading trainer at Santa Anita Park's current meet. The track is owned by the Stronach Group, which also owns Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, where Medina Spirit was permitted to race in the Preakness Stakes following expanded drug testing.
According to the California Horse Racing Board, similar to their counterparts in New York and Kentucky, their hands were tied until Medina Spirit's second sample was confirmed and a complaint against Baffert was filed.
They face the same problem as the C.H.R.B. in that regulators cannot suspend or revoke occupational licenses without a hearing and due process, according to the statement. “Should any regulatory body take action against a licensee, we in California would take the same action.”
Baffert is also the subject of two class-action lawsuits filed by bettors.
Michael Beychok, the handicapper who won the 2012 National Thoroughbred Racing Association's National Horseplayers Championship, sued Baffert and Zedan last month, alleging that they doped the colt and committed fraud to win the Derby.
Beychok claimed he placed $966 in wagers that would have resulted in payouts ranging from $10,000 to $100,000 had Medina Spirit not won the race, according to the lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. Three additional horseplayers joined the suit, claiming they would have earned up to $40,000 had the Baffert colt finished second.
Beychok and his co-plaintiffs assert that Baffert and Zedan are in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and the California Organized Crime Profit Control Act.
Additionally, the recent death of Noodles, a two-year-old unraced colt in Baffert's care, reignited animal rights activists' interest in Baffert and horse racing. A necropsy will be performed and a fatality review will be conducted in accordance with California law.
In 2013, after seven horses in Baffert's care died over a 16-month period, a report by California regulators revealed that he had been administering thyroid hormone to every horse in his barn without checking to see if any of them had thyroid problems.
Baffert told investigators that he believed the medication would aid in the "building up" of his horses, despite the fact that the medication is generally associated with weight loss. In that case, the board's report concluded that there was no evidence of "violation of C.H.R.B. rules or regulations."
Baffert has earned the enmity of rivals who believe he has consistently cheated, suspicions fueled by the fact that his horses have failed 30 drug tests over four decades, including five in the last year or so.
The cases were adjudicated over months, if not years, and resulted in mostly minor fines or brief suspensions, as Baffert maintained he did nothing wrong and blamed the results on environmental contamination or human error. Nonetheless, wealthy owners flocked to Baffert's stable.
The New York Times reported in 2019 that Justify, another Baffert-trained horse, failed a drug test following his victory in the 2018 Santa Anita Derby in Southern California. At the time, the rule required that Justify be disqualified, forfeiting his prize money and barring him from competing in the Kentucky Derby the following month.
At the time, Chuck Winner, the chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, hired Baffert to train his horses. Justify's failed test was investigated for four months, which enabled the horse to continue competing long enough to win not only the Derby, but also the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, thereby becoming the 13th Triple Crown winner. His post-race tests were all negative.
In August 2018, following the $60 million sale of Justify's breeding rights, the racing board's medical director suggested the illegal substance may have been present in some jimsonweed the horse consumed. The board concluded the investigation entirely 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 Derby winners whose victories have been reversed.
Maximum Security crossed the finish line first in 2019, only to be disqualified for nearly colliding with a rival horse in the far turn and slowed the momentum of others. The following year, federal prosecutors charged Maximum Security's trainer, Jason Servis, with being one of 27 people charged in a wide-ranging scheme to secretly dope horses and defraud the betting public.