rush to judgment

By Dick Jerardi

Patience is a lost virtue in our 24/7 society. Once something becomes news, there is a mad rush to get to an immediate conclusion. It is amazing how often the initial “conclusion’’ turns out to be wrong.

I don’t pretend to know how the Medina Spirit betamethasone case will play out, but I am willing to wait it out. I want to know more, better understand the science, see if there are mitigating circumstances.

That is how I thought before I was trained to think that way. The training just reinforced it. Find out what happened by asking questions and then try to arrive at the best obtainable version of the truth.

Unfortunately for trainer Bob Baffert, public opinion does not wait. The headline: “Kentucky Derby winner tests positive’’ becomes the story. There is no nuance.

Baffert becomes Lance Armstrong. It’s not fair, of course. But it is the world we live in, one where perception is reality.

All of us who love the sport want the cheaters out. Horses get mistreated by cheaters. Owners and trainers, who play by the rules, don’t have the deserved success when their horses lose races they should have won.

However, sometimes in our zeal to get rid of the bad guys, we make assumptions before all the facts have been determined. The due process always matters or at least it should.

So here is what we know now. According to the lawyers for Baffert and Medina Spirit’s Amr Zedan, the horse tested positive for the anti-inflammatory betamethasone, a therapeutic medication not allowed to be in a horse’s system on race day in Kentucky. The lawyers also announced that betamethasone was detected in Medina Spirit’s split sample.

I can stand corrected on this, but I have not yet heard a veterinarian say betamethasone is a performance enhancer. It should not be in a horse’s system on or near race day to protect the horse. If a vet conducts a pre-race exam and the anti-inflammatory is still in the horse’s system, it could mask a leg problem.

So what is going on here? Remember Baffert originally said  Media Spirit never got betamethasone. Typically, a horse gets the medication through an injection.

Two days after saying the horse never got betamethasone, Baffert reversed himself and said the horse had been regularly treated with Otomax for a skin rash. Well, it turns out one of the properties in Otomax just happens to be betamethasone.

The way the story came out was clumsy and sounded very much like the dog ate my homework. If this had been a one-off, Baffert may very well have gotten the benefit of the doubt. But he had the two overages for a different medication last year in Arkansas. And then a positive for betamethasone in Gamine after she finished third in the 2020 Kentucky Oaks. And the bizarre scopolamine fiasco after Justify won the 2018 Santa Anita Derby and before the colt won the Triple Crown. And this was the Kentucky Derby. There was going to be major scrutiny.

 It was all just too much. And I absolutely get that, especially in the current environment so soon after the Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro charges.

And how was Baffert winning all those races anyway?  Under the circumstances, it was a reasonable question to ask.

So what are we to believe?

Here is what I think: we don’t have the answers yet. Baffert’s attorneys have filed a lawsuit against the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. I read it and thought what was being asked was not unreasonable

They are saying it was the Otomax that caused the positive. They want another test to determine if there were other properties in the horse’s system that would only be in the Otomax. The horse’s blood has already been tested twice. A third and final blood sample was somehow destroyed on the way to be tested for those Otomax properties.

At a Friday hearing in Kentucky, a circuit court judge was clear that he wanted the colt’s urine sample to be tested to see if the Otomax theory holds up. That should be resolved this week.

Let’s say it was the Otomax. That, at least, changes the perception. Or it should. You don’t treat a skin rash to improve a horse’s performance.

We may never know all of the facts. I hope we do, but that is far from a guarantee.

As a society, we love conspiracies. We really love them in horse racing: This trainer is winning so much because he has some miracle, undetectable, illegal drug. Does that happen? Sadly, yes. More likely, the trainer is winning because he spots his horses well, trains to get them to peak on race day, and employs smart jockeys who formulate intelligent in-race strategies.

Most “conspiracies’’ run by alleged geniuses are typically somebody doing something stupid or just being lazy. And it ends up looking really bad.

There is no argument that what has happened in the Medina Spirit case looks really bad. But was it just something stupid such as using an ointment that contained a prohibited property or something more nefarious?  Time may give us a chance to find out if we are willing to wait long enough for all the questions to be asked and answered.

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