By Dick Jerardi
Been doing a radio show every Saturday morning (9-11, iHeartRadio app) from outside the Sports Book at the Parx Casino. We talked about college basketball throughout the NCAA Tournament. Lately, there has, naturally, been a lot of horse racing discussion. Had trainer Todd Pletcher on the week before the Kentucky Derby, NBC Sports racing analyst Randy Moss Derby Day, and, last Saturday, for 15 minutes, Bob Baffert joined the show. He was still filled with joy over his record seventh Derby win, oblivious to the tsunami that was heading his way.
It was 7 a.m. on the west coast where Baffert was. Just a couple hours later, while he was on the way to the airport to catch a flight east, he was told by assistant Jimmy Barnes that Derby winner Medina Spirit had tested positive for a therapeutic drug (betamethasone) that is legal to use in training but can’t be in a horse’s system on race day.
That night, word started to leak about a positive test that, if confirmed, would eventually result in Medina Spirit’s Derby win being invalidated. The next morning, now back at Churchill Downs, Baffert confirmed the positive in a press conference before saying: “Medina Spirit has never been treated with betamethasone.’’
That was weird. Then, it got weirder.
After two days of trying to figure out what went on, Baffert explained that Medina Spirit had been treated daily with an anti-fungal ointment (otomax) for a skin condition that developed after the Santa Anita Derby. One of the substances in otomax is, you guessed it, betamethasone. Which likely explains the positive finding.
If this had happened in a vacuum without a positive for the same medication (Gamine after the 2020 Kentucky Oaks) and two lidocaine positives from Arkansas Derby Day in 2020, Baffert may have gotten the benefit of the doubt. But they happened and the howling began.
Betamethasone is an anti-inflammatory that is termed a Class 4-C drug by the ARCI (Association of Racing Commissioners International), with 1 being a drug most likely to affect a horse’s performance and 5 being the least likely. The C refers to the recommended penalty. In this case, if a test on a split sample confirms the original finding and because this would be Baffert’s second such betamethasone positive within 365 days, the penalty is a minimum fine of $1,500 and a 15-day suspension. Most importantly, Medina Spirit would be disqualified from his Derby win and second-place Mandaloun declared the winner.
Last year, when Gamine tested positive, Baffert admitted she had been given betamethasone. He just thought it would have been out of her system by the time she ran third in the Ky. Oaks. This time, he says Medina Spirit never got the drug. Well, it turns out the horse did sort of getting it, but not through injection which is the normal method.
It never made much sense that a trainer would use betamethasone so close to a race as it is easily detectable in a post-race test. Again, this is a therapeutic medication, not some heavy-duty pain killer or performance enhancer that would be termed a Class 1 drug. The distinction, however, is mostly lost on the general public which will just see “Derby winner tested positive.’’ There is no space for nuance in 2021.
Baffert wondered aloud about tests that are so sensitive that they can pick up minute traces of certain drugs. It is a reasonable question, but it is also reasonable to ask why, among the top trainers, it just seems to be happening to him.
“Why is it happening to me?’’ Baffert wondered. “There’s problems in racing, but it’s not Bob Baffert.’’
Churchill Downs reacted to the news of the positive test by saying it would not accept Baffert’s entries. Officials at Pimlico where the Preakness is scheduled to be run this Saturday considered the issue and then decided to take Medina Spirit’s entry, with the proviso that the colt undergo a pre-race test to make sure the betamethasone has cleared his system. So, assuming that happens, Medina Spirit will face nine rivals in the Preakness.
Regardless of what anybody thinks about any of this, due process should matter. Medina Spirit is still the Derby winner unless and until a split sample is also determined to be positive for betamethasone. Then, a hearing will be held.
The bottom line is that this is a terrible look for Baffert and the game. When your sport’s most recognizable figure is in the news for all the wrong reasons, it is not helpful.
“The last thing I want to do is something that would jeopardize the greatest two minutes in sports,’’ Baffert said Sunday.
If it was in fact one of the properties in the ointment that caused the positive test, it was a colossal blunder by Baffert’s barn as betamethasone is right on the otomax label. Meanwhile, it would probably be best for everybody to await the split sample result and the hearing where evidence can be introduced, explanations given and judgment rendered.