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?