By Dick Jerardi
The Kentucky stewards Feb. 21 ruling was clinical. It read: “sample No. E427258, taken from Medina Spirit who finished first in the 12th race at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2021, contained betamethasone in the blood (Class C drug) (fourth medication violation in 365 days in any racing jurisdiction.’’
That 12th race, of course, was the Kentucky Derby. So this was no ordinary positive test.
The stewards ruled that Medina Spirit’s trainer Bob Baffert be suspended for 90 days (March 9-June 5) and fined $7,500 and that Medina Spirit be disqualified and all purse money forfeited.
So there it was, nearly 300 days after Baffert himself announced that he had been notified of the positive test for an overage of the anti-inflammatory, Mandaloun is now being recognized by Churchill Downs as the official winner of the Kentucky Derby, with Hot Rod Charlie second and Essential Quality third.
There is that and there is what happens next. All of this will be appealed and almost certainly will end up in court. While Baffert is appealing his suspension, he can still train and run horses, assuming he gets a stay which is typical in these cases. Medina Spirit’s owner will also appeal his horse’s DQ.
Not sure how long all this will take, but after Derby winner Dancer’s Image was DQ’d in 1968 for having then illegal (long since legal) Bute in his system, those legal appeals took four years until Forward Pass was, once and for all, declared the official Derby winner.
So, what do I think? Frankly, I am not sure what to think.
I understand the stewards’ decision. The rules in Kentucky state that no amount of betamethasone can be in a horse’s system on race day. (It is legal for a horse to have it in his system during training).
I also understand there is some nuance here, as Baffert’s attorney Clark Brewster pointed out in his statement after the ruling, saying that, in his opinion, the Kentucky rules only consider betamethasone illegal if it is administered into a horse’s joint, saying that Medina Spirit was treated with an ointment, not an injection.
That was Baffert’s argument in a hearing a week before the decision. The stewards’ obviously disagreed.
After initially saying Medina Spirit was never treated with betamethasone last May, Baffert then said he did not realize the drug was an ingredient in Otomax, an ointment they were using to treat a skin condition in the weeks leading up to the Derby.
Baffert’s attorneys eventually got a leftover sample from Medina Spirit and had it tested in New York. The result of those tests, they said, proved it was the ointment, not an injectable, that led to the positive test.
In his statement, Brewster said: “Median Spirit was treated with an ointment, not an injection. The trace amount of betamethasone could not have affected the horse in any way and the trace amount of betamethasone could not possibly have affected the outcome of the race.’’
What Brewster’s statement said there is obviously critical and is the ultimate question for me: did the presence of betamethasone help Medina Spirit win the race? To this point, I have not seen any evidence that it did.
Unlike many, I absolutely think Baffert has every right to due process here. If he thinks he has been wronged, he should be able to appeal. I also understand the people who are upset with him and are convinced he has been doing something illegal all along. I don’t see the proof of that, but I do understand the sentiment.
One obvious unanswered question: why was Medina Spirit treated with Otomax if one of its ingredients could not be in the horse’s system on race day? Did the vet not think it would show up in a test? It would be interesting to hear the answer.
Regardless of how this plays out, it all makes the sport look bad. Do I think Baffert is Lance Armstrong? No, I do not. But, in our society these days, we don’t do nuance. The public just sees: Derby winner tests positive and that’s it.
So, here we are. Baffert’s record seventh Derby winner has been disqualified. Churchill Downs, Inc., separate from the official rulings, has banned Baffert from running horses at its tracks for two years.
Assuming he gets the stay and nothing has been decided by the third Saturday of May, Baffert will be able to run horses in the Preakness at Pimlico. The New York Racing Association is also trying to ban him from its tracks. That situation is unresolved so it’s unclear if Baffert will be able to run horses in the Belmont Stakes. So, to review, Medina Spirit has been DQ’d from the Derby and Baffert has been suspended. Yet, this saga, nearly 10 months after it began, is nowhere near over.