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?