Could we have another Kentucky Derby DQ? Medina Spirit has failed a post-Derby drug test, testing positive for betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory steroid used to treat joint pain in horses. Betamethasone is not an illegal drug, but Kentucky restricts its use to more than 14 days before a race. The test showed that Medina Spirit revealed 21 picograms of the drug, which is more than double the legal limit allowed in Kentucky (a picogram is one-trillionth of a gram).
Trainer Bob Baffert states the horse had never been treated with the drug and is going forward with his plan to enter the colt in the Preakness Stakes next weekend. While the “B” sample is being tested, Churchill Downs has banned Baffert-trained horses from running at the track. Note: most of the time, there is no announcement after an A sample is found to have failed a test. Officials wait until the B sample results come in. Bob Baffert made the announcement today saying that the results had been leaked and he wanted to stay ahead of the rumors.
This is not the first time that Baffert has been in trouble over this drug. In fact, this was Baffert’s fifth drug positive in the past 12 months; he has racked up at least 31 others in his career.
Some of his most high profile issues with drugs include Gamine’s disqualification in the Kentucky Oaks last fall, also for betamethsone. In this case, Baffert said the drug had been administered to the mare 18 days prior to racing, but had failed to clear her system.
Then there were two disqualifications during the Arkansas Derby meet. Charlatan and Gamine both tested positive for lidocaine after winning their races. Charlatan’s owners forfeited the $300K purse and Gamine’s owners lost the $35K she won. Baffert argued that the exposure had been accidental, that his assistant trainer had been using a medicinal patch while recovering from a broken pelvis that contained lidocaine and had transferred from his hands to the horse when he put on their tongue ties. He won. The winnings and placings were restored. But Baffert was still fined $5K per horse. Confusing, right?
The highest-profile case involved Justify’s failed drug test for scopolamine following the Santa Anita Derby. In theory, Justify’s failed test should have caused him to forfeit his prize money and his entry into the Kentucky Derby. In practice, it took four months for California racing officials to investigate the failed test, by which time Justify had won the Triple Crown and his breeding rights had been sold for $60 million. The California Horse Racing Board held a (rare) closed-door session and ruled that Justify’s positive test for the banned drug had been the result of “environmental contamination,” not intentional doping. This despite testimony from the man who ran the drug lab for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission that the quantity of the drug found in Justify was too high to be caused by contamination in his feed or bedding.
Too Good to be True?
In an industry where top trainers boast a winning percentage of 20%, Baffert’s win stats are off the charts. In 2020 and 2021, his horses are winning 30% of their races and this year 64% of his starters have been in the top three. According to Equibase, starters from Baffert’s barn have won at least 26% of their races in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020 and 2021.
Baffert’s horses have won 17 Triple Crown races in the last 25 years, including seven Kentucky Derbies (well, maybe six).
When your horses win this much, trainers expect to be submitted to drug tests. Would Bob Baffert really risk his reputation by giving Medina Spirit a banned substance? Or will there be another explanation whereby Baffert’s team is able to deflect the result and attribute it to contamination — again. Bob Baffert is nicknamed “Teflon Bob” for a reason.
The real losers here are racing fans. For the winner of the Kentucky Derby — arguably the race with the most visibility in the US — to be smeared with a drugging controversy gives the entire industry a black eye. Racing already is under fire and the possibility that drugging exists at the highest levels completely undermines the public’s confidence in a level playing field.