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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


By Peter Applebee — Saratoga Springs, May 26, 2021 — Every Triple Crown season creates a constellation of memories and we’ve made more memories than usual the last couple of years. 

In 2019 the Kentucky Derby “winner” was disqualified for interference and taken down after a 22-minute steward’s inquiry. That was an unprecedented event.

Last year, the COVID impacted Triple Crown races were run out of order. The Belmont Stakes was shortened to a mile and an eighth and the Preakness Stakes wasn’t held until early October. All were a unprecedented.

But 2021? Wow!

The Triple Crown storyline this year reads like a surreal equine thriller.

It began with a rags to riches horse, who once sold for $1,000, winning the Kentucky Derby in a hard fought performance for the most successful Kentucky Derby trainer ever. For now, anyway.

The genius horse trainer did it again. That’s seven…count ‘em…seven Derby firsts. He even got this horse into the Churchill Downs winner’s circle.

The horse’s sudden rise had occurred, but there was an even more sudden fall to follow. 

It only took a matter of hours after the race before rumors of a “medication positive” involving the Derby began to spread. By the following morning, the wheels had fallen off.

Or had they?

Baffert announced with much sound and fury, “No way!” The test results were wrong, Medina Spirit never has been treated with betamethasone. 

Baffert’s performance over the next several days sounded like the old Jon Lovitz Saturday Night Live character “Tommy Flanagan,” who kept talking and talking with more implausible fictional accounts of what he wished had occurred. 

“It was the groom who…who… peed in the stall…yeah, yeah, that’s the ticket…and then there is …ummm…cancel culture…yeah, yeah that’s the ticket…they’re trying to cancel me, cancel me from winning the Derby.”

Yeah, that was the ticket, until it wasn’t. 

The next act was more like a Seinfeld episode: “Oh my, look at this ingredient list on an ointment we have been giving the horse every day … will you look at that –  “b-e-t-a-m-e-t-h-a-s-o-n-e”…who would have known that? Look at that, right on the label…how ‘bout that?”

But that was not the end of the drama – far from it.

Churchill Downs suspended the trainer and it was unclear if Pimlico would follow suit. The drama was heightened when Pimlico then delayed the Preakness draw by a day.  Would the Derby winner be allowed to run?

Well, Medina Spirit did run in The Preakness after passing three pre-race tests, only to finish third to a horse that had never won a dirt race in his life. 

Talk about burying the lede. Preakness winner Rombauer only won twice prior to his Preakness win. He broke his maiden on turf at Del Mar and won the El Camino Real on the all-weather surface at Golden Gate Fields.

What a way to get off the duck on dirt!

NYRA, host of The Belmont Stakes, then entered the scene. Two days after the Preakness, NYRA announced a temporary suspension of Baffert pending test results from a split sample. At this point, Medina Spirit is functionally barred from running in the Belmont Stakes.

Frankly, Rombauer did the industry a big favor in Baltimore.  If Medina Spirit had won the Preakness, we would be facing weeks of news coverage about a horse going for the Triple Crown who is likely to be disqualified from his Derby win.

That would have been awful, and it would have cast a pall over the entire Belmont Stakes festival. Instead, we are off to Big Sandy and the Test of a Champion, albeit juvenile champion Essential Quality.

The drama finally will end on June 5th. Or will it?

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12 Responses

  1. PA–
    Ain’t that some bunch of bananas!
    I find it interesting that Stronach’s Pimlico and Santa Anita let Baffert continue to run his super steeds, while non-Stronach Churchill and NYRA have suspended Baffert from entering horses. Clearly Santa Anita is bereft of quality horses without Baffert’s entries, and Baffert even won a turf stakes (at a generous 5-1) at SA this weekend.
    I am reminded of a lyric from a Peter, Paul and Mary classic: “When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn……” I will leave it to the Cat Man to provide the rest of the lyrics!

  2. Amen Chuck. Of course you have to want to learn.
    It seems like some jurisdictions are happy to have their head in the sand…

  3. I agree with Chuck about the Stronach group. Baffert is a favored trainer out there. It will be interesting to see if owners start to leave Baffert after this one. Peter continues to bring important issues forward in his articles. I hope he continues.

  4. Peter has the green light, Dan.

    And I’m sorry, but in terms of Baffert “rulings,” believe that Arkansas could give California a run for its money…

  5. I suppose the subtlety with the Baffert bans is that it was the track management at Churchill Downs and NYRA that banned Baffert–the bans were not made by their respective State racing commissions. In fact, Churchill Downs made it clear that their ban remains in effect until the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission takes action.
    The leniency provided to Baffert in Arkansas and Maryland was based upon the actions of their State racing commissions. The Maryland Jockey Club and 1/ST Racing (ie, Pimlico) track management announced their concurrence with the pre-race testing protocols set forth for Baffert’s entries in the 2021 Preakness. And perhaps those protocols had an impact on the performance of Baffert’s horses.

    1. Those are good points Chuck. I am all for due process but I also appreciate the value of treating repeat (and repeat) offenders a bit differently. Especially when this repeat offender admits to administering the drug – and yes it happened in the biggest race of the year. If anything, standards and penalties should be harsher in those circumstances given the negative effect these positive tests on racing generally. But has JP rightly points out – no one should be above the law, even if he has a great PR team and gives good interviews on tv.

  6. Chuck, can’t argue with your reasoning but will say I thought Medina ran well, just third best behind two good horses on the day and, personally, never really bought into his sprinter/miler mate… Happy that CDI and NYRA sent “messages.”

    In America, no man is above the law. In racing, no man is bigger than the game.

  7. I agree that no man is bigger than the game, but it may only take one man to bring it down. In addition to polluting the nation’s biggest horse race with drugs, Baffert continues to have 2yos die. In 2018, Baffert had three 2yos die while in training at Los Al–two of which succumbed to sudden deaths from acute cardiorespiratory failure. And in 2021 Baffert has already had a 2yo die at Los Al of respiratory failure/pneumonia.

    1. Again, Chuck, no disagreement from me. Along with his mighty records are his many transgressions, the most egregious being the sudden equine deaths, especially considering a good number of them were juveniles. The industry and lovers of the sport anxiously await the result of the split sample which ordinarily takes long. Given the amount of testing done by labs not only for all sports but with a backlog resulting from the pandemic, the long wait may be longer than usual. And, as of last weekend, that sample was still in Kentucky. Why?

  8. JP–
    You were among the first to blow the whistle on Baffert’s record regarding 2yo deaths and you have remained ever vigilant!

  9. Just trying our best to do some good for the game and its fans. Must admit it gets wearing. I know you follow SoCal racing, and I assume you read about John Sadler’s issue with biphosphates…

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