Breeders’ Cup pre-entries will be released Wednesday morning and for the second all-time leading Breeders’ Cup trainer with 15 victories, along with two Triple Crown sweeps and six Kentucky Derbies, the highly visible Bob Baffert is much in the news these days.
But the stories are not pretty ones. Drug positives this year concerning several of Baffert’s high-profile horses, including a test result that became known last week, has put the Hall of Famer and the sport that’s trying to curry favor and seek redemption from the public on trial.
Two respected journalists; Tim Sullivan of the Louisville Courier-Journal, and Natalie Voss of Paulick Report, recently reported on disparate developments yet their reportage is inexorably linked:
Sullivan covered the Gamine/Kentucky Oaks positive, one that is awaiting the results from a split sample at a second laboratory. The betamethasone infraction was the only positive result from 89 horses tested after competing at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby weekend.
On the heels of the Kentucky Racing Commission’s positive findings Grade 1-winning Gamine, Voss revealed, according to an advance release of a California Horse Racing Board Report, that more than half of 256 Thyroxine prescriptions this year came from two unidentified barns.
Further revealed was that three veterinarians allegedly were responsible for writing 80 percent of those prescriptions, and that new diagnostic standards for thyroxine use in California could be initiated after the CHRB report suggested that “some trainers are ignoring board warnings about overuse of thyroxine.”
Fans and bettors first became aware of the medication and its potential for abuse after an undercover video from a Steve Asmussen barn worker, operating as an undercover agent for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, infiltrated the Asmussen barn.
Hall of Famer Asmussen, who recently saddled his 9,000th career winner, is on track to become the winningest trainer in the history of Thoroughbred racing.
The surreptitious video came replete with audio of top assistant Scott Blasi’s explaining to the covert operative how thyroxine, intended as a hypothyroid therapeutic, works as a performance enhancer by artificially speeding up a horse’s metabolism.
Absent validated medical need, thyroxine has been abused when used as a dietary supplement. The drug gained national focus in 2013 when the CHRB investigated seven Thoroughbred sudden deaths over an 18-month period. All seven were trained by Baffert.
During the course of the investigation, Baffert revealed that all the horses in his care were administered thyroxine orally as a matter of routine, placing it in feed tubs in the manner one would add any other dietary supplement.
However, the tendency to use thyroxine as a supplement rather than therapeutically extends well beyond one or two barns. Reported Voss:
“The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and American Association of Equine Practitioners put out an advisory earlier this year emphasizing to trainers that thyroxine is a drug which should be given based on a medical diagnosis, not a wellness product to be distributed to the whole shedrow.”
But according to CHRB rules governing medication use, it is also stated that neither name of the horse nor the connections involved in an ongoing investigation may be revealed.
Gamine’s second positive of 2020 has drawn comments from several horsemen—a group normally loath to speaking on the record, one racetrack organization and, as one would expect, animal rights groups.
“The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission should address the latest drug violations swiftly and harshly,” said Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action, “and should issue proper penalties immediately following its investigation. Without meaningful consequences… American horse racing will continue to suffer setbacks…”
Speaking for PETA, Vice President Kathy Guillermo told the Courier-Journal that “if the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission finds that Gamine was the victim of a medication abuse, it should take swift action to ensure Baffert never races in Kentucky again. The welfare of the horses, not the fame of the trainer, must be the first consideration.”
Said trainer Mick Ruis of the recent Baffert revelation, “the chickens are coming home to roost.”
Ruis’s Bolt d’Oro finished second to Justify in the 2018 Santa Anita Derby. Justify went to win that year’s Triple Crown for Baffert despite a Santa Anita Derby post-race positive, information that was withheld by the CHRB until after the Kentucky Derby.
Justify would not have made it into the Derby starting gate without 100 qualifying points earned for his Santa Anita Derby victory. The incident went unrecorded until the New York Times broke the story in 2019. Ruis is suing for the winner’s share of the purse.
Before the failed Oaks Day drug test could be traced conclusively to the Baffert barn, Churchill Downs, reported Sullivan, responded to an inquiry about the infraction with a statement “full of indignation and condemnation. It read in part:
“ ‘We have long advocated for strict regulations… Noncompliance is cheating and it jeopardizes the well-being of the horses and fairness in our sport. It cannot be tolerated…’ Churchill stood by that statement [made a month earlier] even though it casts thoroughbred racing’s most famous figure as a cheat.” [brackets mine]
Said Barry Irwin, owner-breeder of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom: “This whole thing points out that [racing] needs to rein this thing in… I think he thinks he’s gotten bigger than the game… Currently, most of my horses race in Europe. I’m sick and tired of running here in America against guys that cheat.”
Databases of the Association of Racing Commissioners International and the Jockey Club are incomplete but taken together show that Baffert has had at least 30 previous medication violations during his career involving a dozen different drugs, said the Courier-Journal.
In a subsequent story, Sullivan wrote: “However plausible, Baffert’s explanations might be more persuasive if they were less frequent. Gamine tested positive at Churchill Downs only four months after both she and Charlatan tested positive for lidocaine on Arkansas Derby Day, and less than a year after the New York Times revealed a positive test had been concealed…”
With the advent of Breeders’ Cup, there has been a heightened awareness of horseracing among sports fans on Twitter, arguably the sport’s most important social media platform.
In a liked retweet, @Joseph Lucibello wrote:
“Gamine, a three year old filly who has raced five times… FIVE … needed corticosteroid injection in August?
“Sad for her … and for our sport. What’s wrong with Thoroughbred physiology, training, and racing conditions if such a young and lightly-raced horse needs this?”
@Maxwins (in a retweet, from Two Gun Sid)
“Racing needs a drug positive task force – it can be modeled after VP Pence’s coronavirus task force. Meet every day for a while, then declare victory and quietly stop meeting.”
@Two Gun Sid
“Good luck with that Jorge … so sorry, I mean Jason… oops, sorry, I mean Bob.”
@Mary Ann in a liked @johnpricci retweet
“ICYMI: With another of his horses failing a drug test, trainer Bob Baffert will test thoroughbred racing’s commitment to reform.”
“These violations by Bobby White Hair are putting the final nail in the racing industry, a friend that does not bet or follow racing asks me why don’t the racing officials just shut him down?”