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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

IN THE WAKE OF MEDINA SPIRIT’S DEATH, WILL PUBLIC OPINION CANCEL THOROUGHBRED RACING?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL,  December 12, 2021 – In many ways, this week’s sudden death of Kentucky Derby first Medina Spirit is a profoundly sad symbol of how the sport of Thoroughbred racing is perceived in modern times. It’s as if every one of racing’s chickens had come home to roost.

Crossing the finish line for the last time following a workout, the horse, according to eye witnesses, seemed to just lie down on the track and by the time help had arrived, it was too late. The bay horse was already gone.

The most sadness is reserved for those closest to him, but anyone emotionally tethered to Thoroughbreds, whether they be stakeholders, fans, or hard core gamblers, can feel the pain. The fact is that horses touch people’s lives, however anachronistic that might sound these days.

Despite the controversy surrounding his contested Derby victory, Medina Spirit was popular with American sports fans who always have embraced the underdog athlete. And there can be no bigger underdog in today’s game than a yearling that sells for $1,000.

Resold for another pittance, $35,000, to owner Amr Zayad, Medina Spirit, named for an Islamic holy city, showed his connections early that he indeed possessed an uncommon spirit, getting his first nutrients from a surrogate, not his birth mother, a fighter right from the start.

Despite those humble origins, he achieved exceptional success. Uncelebrated early, he entered the spotlight when he debuted for the sport’s most recognizable face, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. And therein lies the rest of the story.

Controversy notwithstanding, he thrived under Baffert’s tutelage, compiling a 5-4-1 money record from 10 starts with earnings of over $3.5 million. But it’s not that simple; it never is when the sport’s most recognizable face is embroiled in yet another enigma-wrapped mystery.

Medina Spirit collapsed and died in the same week the deportation of  disgraced trainer Jorge Navarro was big news, when controversial Peter Miller found infamy again, when Laurel announced it would reopen after surface repairs were made in the wake of a flurry of stretch breakdowns.

And the news wasn’t much better across the pond: French authorities issued 15 indictments following a raid on the Rossi family’s racing headquarters, or in Great Britain where jockey Robbie Dunne was judged guilty of bullying female fellow rider Bryony Frost.

But all of that paled in comparison to the death of a presumptive Kentucky Derby champion who died under circumstances so mysterious that it demands the scrutiny of a full toxicological examination to determine the actual cause of death.

There always are many questions but far fewer credible explanations of racing’s most untoward events, and it matters not whether those occasions were avoidable or tragically accidental. Only this time horse racing is the patient–and the patient already is on life support.

Given the relentlessness of bad news, will the death of an equine celebrity signal the end of the public’s willingness to allow horse racing to continue? One could blame dog racing’s demise in part on a lack of box office appeal. But what of the circus? Public pressure matters.

Like it or not, racing’s current position is tenuous. If one can afford it, like those who would cancel democracy for their own ends and means, justice can be delayed, and that seldom ends well. Consider this example of how power and influence can corrupt the sport.

After winning the 2018 Santa Anita Derby, Justify, who needed that victory to qualify for a start in the Kentucky Derby, tested positive for scopolamine, a prohibited substance. Routinely, such a finding would be reported within days to the California Horse Racing Board.

Instead, the situation received “special handling” and the matter wasn’t adjudicated until four months had passed. Meanwhile, Justify became the sport’s 13th Triple Crown winner, suffered a filling in his left ankle, reported Baffert, and considered too valuable to risk, he was retired.

The CHRB determined that it was scopolamine at all, jimson weed was the culprit.

For a Hall of Fame horseman of immense accomplishment, Baffert must be either the unluckiest or most inattentive trainer to ever tighten a girth.

He has had 30 positive findings—twice for morphine use—but the majority were overages of permitted medications. He became the Teflon trainer.

The causes have varied widely. In addition to jimson weed, there was rat poison ingestion, contamination from barn workers who used assorted pain relievers leading to accidental contamination and the laughable ingestion of poppy-seed bagels by grooms. All this bludgeons credulity.

The betamethasone administered to Medina Spirit, whatever the means, is illegal in Kentucky and as everyone knows has resulted in barring Baffert’s participation in the 2022 and 2023 Kentucky Derby as Churchill Downs Inc. efforts to safeguard its brand.

Obviously, Baffert is a man of considerable means and influence. At one point, 11 of 13 CHRB board members had an interest in horses he trained. Only this time a Kentucky Derby hero is gone, the injury termed a “sudden death” as he collapsed upon pulling up after a workout.

The public relations fallout from this was severe and came quickly. Statistics have shown that of all trainers whose horses succumbed to “sudden death,” Including the seven from 2011-13, Baffert’s horses statistically are nine times more vulnerable  to sudden death.

Of 161 respondents to a New York Times poll, 160 would outlaw horse racing. The New York Post believes that Baffert deserves a lifetime ban. We swiped through 29 Twitter responses and the last time we looked; 27 were negative.

Like all lovers of the game, I took Medina Spirit’s death harder than the day to day tragedies that everyday players have come to expect, but this gave me pause:

What do I say to my neighbor if she asks why or how this could happen? What will happen if Kentucky nullifies Medina Spirit’s victory but it’s business as usual for Baffert? How long will the public provide a social license for racing to continue?

What other trainer would survive five positive tests in championship defining events within one year? Looking back on his career, much of the evidence against Baffert is circumstantial. Does Baffert deserve the benefit of doubt? And, if so, when will enough finally be enough?

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21 Responses

  1. Dateline Hong Kong; Longines Sprint at the big track there were 2 young Equine athletes killed out of their misery while 3 jockeys suffered diverse injuries.It ALWAYS takes some joy out of betting and even watching as many races a s I used to.It`s like being an accomplice to a criminal [sport,activity],more or less like watching prisoners kill each other at a Roman,Greek Coliseum or watching the so called courageous Toreador stab a tired,hungry bull at a Corrida. It kills the joy that once existed.Why be a supporter,patron,bettor of such inanity ,as i caress my newly adopted Doberman-Collie,Cleo, ?? Not to mention what regularly happens at thousands of cheap claimers who cannot any longer support their upkeep just like the thousands[ 30,000 circa] yearly still eliminated docile, feeble Greyhounds. It takes guts,more than greed. RIP.

  2. USADA can’t take on their role fast enough. Despite their flaws, they are the last best hope for horse racing in the US. They can be the basis for radical change that will require many people to get out of the industry. In 2018, horseplayers gained a natural new home when the US Supreme Court ruled that any of the 50 states can legalize sports betting. Racing will survive in a place like Kentucky, but the extent of its reach nationwide by 2030 will probably be much smaller. California (which should secede and become its own country) will probably ban horse racing sometime in the next 5 years.

    1. Well made observations per usual Dan. I thought of HISA often last week and the patchwork quilt of rules and regulations that have always been part of the game, one, as Leroy Jolley once said, is not played in short pants.

      If racing’s regulators punt and throw this in the lap of HISA, it would be a great message for federal regulators to send. Personally, I’d like to see racing’s leading organizations make the statement first. But the industry’s PPs are not encouraging in this area, and I truly hope I’m surprised and proven wrong.

    2. Sadly, all your points are valid and much of what you say has a chance to come to pass. Hope we’re both wrong about the current and perhaps future state of the game. But you know the American people, too many care about animals and the unborn and not enough about their fellow man.

      Below is reprinted personal email

      Indulto says:
      December 13, 2021 at 11:34 am

      JP,
      Loved the piece, but what other trainers have yet faced the scrutiny currently being applied to Baffert? My concern is that Baffert will be over-sanctioned prior to establishing protocols that should be — and actually are — applied to all trainers.

      Should he be fined, given days off, and return purse money for all the proven testing violations? Of course.

      Should necropsies of his alleged “sudden death” victims be performed by additional experts with no connection to the CHRB wherever possible? Yes.

      Should he lose his trainer’s license if a pattern of medication misuse can be demonstrated among those victims? Yes.

      Should unsubstantiated conjecture, unexplainable coincidences, and seldom matched winning statistics be justification for investigation and monitoring? Yes, IF applied equally to ALL trainers.

      Should Churchill’s simple ban on horses for specific races only from a specific trainer be upheld? No. IMO only a commonly applied rule should be used, e.g., something like prohibiting horses from any trainer with more than X positive tests during the previous N days/months.

      The last thing racing needs is to make Baffert a martyr while someone else assumes his role and results.

  3. Tell your neighbor that you had a good, long run, but that horse racing was never gonna survive the digital age and social media. How could it? There’s always been so many sickening atrocities in the Sport of Kings, such Waste of Life — both human and equine, by the way, as the previous poster alluded to — that couldn’t very well be kept hidden, even by those most motivated to do the hiding. Hell, even before everyone started walking around with their own, personal news cameras (and the opportunity to publicly disseminate every last cruelty this anti-sport could offer up), racing was doomed to the dustbin of animal abuse history.
    Please, let it just go there, as it should have gone years ago.

    1. Kelly, I’m afraid that I’m not a big enough person to believe that I’ve wasted a half century of my life as a racetracker/journalist and must admit that if I had to do it all over again, I would. Next time, however, I’ll try harder, and earlier, to affect some solution and not contribute to an existing problem. I welcome everyone’s comments if reasonably and respectfully submitted. Thank you…

      1. Appreciate your willingness to accept comments from within, and from outside (and anti-!) your game. Please don’t think I was suggesting you, nor anyone of your position or mindset, were the ones who’ve had their lives “wasted” by the Sport of Kings. I was referring to the ACTUAL human death toll, which is substantial, as you know. My major concern, however, is for the welfare of the HORSES — for which racing’s record is absolutely abysmal. Peace!

        1. Hey Kelly, horse racing is a tough game. I don’t offer that as an excuse, in any way, but as a fact. No one intends to get in a deadly accident when they back out of the driveway on their way to work, just as horsemen don’t expect to be killed, or tragically lose an animal under their care.

          I can only swear to you about the care these animals get that I’ve seen personally, treated better than some humans treat their fellow man. But that’s why they are called accidents. If it weren’t for racing, there would be no reason for Thoroughbreds to exist,. they are, as the Boss might say, born to run.

          And while racing may be anachronistic here, it’s a big part of life around the rest of the world. If American racing were to disappear, that would not signal the end of racing around the world, the chess pieces simply would be moved.

          Thanks again–this time for replaying to my response. Your input always welcome here.

          Peace, indeed…

          JP

  4. John,you continue to fight the good fight. While you fight racing continues to look the other way. All you need to do is look at NY and Ca. Racing. In New York you have owners on the board who have continually used trainers with questionable credentials. Has NY ever
    ruled a big time trainer off the grounds ? I guess you could argue Dutrow,but that only happened because he threw stuff back at the powers that be. You could as far back as Oscar and never see a top trainer thrown off the grounds. It would be more likely for them to Baja winning player.
    California has its own set of rules and it seems Baffert and the powers that be are in collusion. Where do we go from here is the question that is never answered.

    1. Will say this about California. When Hollendorfer had four breakdowns in a period of about a month, including a big dropdown he shipped to NoCal and suffered a catastrophic breakdown he was gone.

      My beef with New York is that Dutrow did not lose a horse racing or training at a NYRA track for 11 years, and that evidence was planted by a disgraced NYS investigator who lied on the stand and ignored, and officials including the Jockey Club ignored the testimony of a steward who had knowledge of the incident.

      You are correct, it was personal, and unjust.

      And don’t get me started on collusion among racing officials in NY and KY who conspired against him, a broke chain of evidence, and… and…

  5. John,

    “My beef with New York is that Dutrow did not lose a horse racing or training at a NYRA track for 11 years…”

    I’m sorry to go off on a tangent here, as Baffert is much more germane, but I’m going ask you again, for the second or third time, to explain on what possible basis you continue to make the above claim?

    These are the facts, as listed in the New York State Gaming Equine Breakdown, Death, Injury and Incident Database:

    EQUINE DEATH Racing 07/01/2009 Big Stack Belmont Park (NYRA) RF sesamoid fxs-euthanized
    EQUINE DEATH Training 06/07/2011 Stradvinisky Belmont Park (NYRA) post-op complications from LHL condular fx-euthanized
    EQUINE DEATH Training 02/18/2010 Tutor Aqueduct Racetrack (NYRA) severe distress-CV Collapse-euthanized
    EQUINE DEATH Training 05/07/2010 Break Water Edison Aqueduct Racetrack (NYRA) fx R humerus-euthanized

    Now, if you want to argue that a cardiovascular incident is not relevant, that’s fine. If you want to argue the same about a fracture that caused a death soon after surgery, it might at least be debatable. But even excluding those two, there remain two deaths on NYRA tracks due to breakdowns, under Dutrow’s care, that you continue to ignore.

    I’ll end by making the same point that I did previously: If you can’t see how this false claim degrades what might be an otherwise strong argument, then I’m afraid that you’re missing the forest for the trees.

    1. The information I received was as a result of an interview I did with the NYRA Veterinarian at the time. The research I did subsequent to that does not disprove his testimony to me.

      I could be wrong, admittedly. So let’s say you are correct, and there were four, or two, breakdowns. One is too many as we all know. But we’re talking 11 years at NYRA tracks.

      These are not Hollendorfer numbers, nor Baffert numbers where in 16 months were there were seven fatalities, four termed “sudden deaths.” And the CHRB’s Rick Arthur saying that unwarranted use of Thyro-L, which was put in the feed tubs of all horses, put those horses at risk for cardiac arrest.

      I hear your argument, but there is context and there are matters of degree to consider. I have in my possession conspiratorial emails between NY and KY racing commissions which were quoted in a portion of a three-part series we wrote. No one framed Medina Spirit’s trainer.

      There are facts, truth, and justice. They shouldn’t be, but sometimes they are mutually exclusive.

      Thanks for taking the time to research, Tink…

  6. Thanks John. Few have been more critical of Baffert than I. Hell, I challenged him several times on The Paulick Report to take a polygraph test (re: PEDs), with both of us putting up $100k on the outcome. I might as well have said $1m, as I knew that there wasn’t a chance in hell that he would accept.

    It’s true, of course, that there were many other trainers who used PEDs such as EPO, steroids and Clenbuterol, along with milkshaking, etc., but for the “face of the sport” to be one of them has been very difficult to stomach.

    I also agree with you about the contrast between BB and Dutrow, as the latter, despite his faults, was a true horseman, and did far less harm to the animals in his care. Baffert skating from that cluster of deaths was particularly galling.

    1. Appreciate your understanding, Tink. Thanks. We’re both guilty. Like Patton said: God help me I do love it so. Safe and healthy holidays to you and your family…

  7. Baffert is not teflon, the shit is sticking to him now, being a cardiac nurse, and doing the research a three year old horse that dies of a sudden cardiac arrhytthmia the main reason is drugs, that is a fact and the case on him and all of the rest of them will be closed soon. Kat

    1. Kat, Cannot fault your logic. We all need to wait to see how this will shake out. The Kentucky Racing Commission must be using Merritt Garland’s sun dial before reaching a decision…

  8. Happy Christmas John, I don’t know what is the deal with KY, if people really think TB racing is done in this country they have not been to any TB sales, people are spending a lot of money, all sales results are up trending. KY will never let this business die, it is their life and the life of many others who love horses. The main problem here is over training and over working, I proved this is not required to win but no one is listening. If you truly love TB you would do nothing to harm them. I say put BB under a lie detector, somebody had that idea, and all the rest of them, I will get in line for mine gladly because I am the one of a few that would pass that test. Sincerely Kat

    1. Hope you are enjoying Christmas weekend. Alas, if only the world were a perfect place. It was not a good week for fans and players last week. Probably will have something on this soon, but having a little holiday break, even if only for a day or two…

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