Thirty dead horses at a California track. Federal indictments accusing more than two dozen trainers and veterinarians from Florida to New York of doping their animals. All in the past two and a half years.
Is there anything the sport of thoroughbred racing holds sacred?
On Sunday, we found out: the Kentucky Derby.
Almost as soon as Bob Baffert announced that his colt Medina Spirit had failed a drug test after winning the 147th running of America’s greatest race, officials of Churchill Downs made it clear that if a second sample confirmed the presence of betamethasone, a corticosteroid injected into joints to reduce pain and swelling, the colt would be disqualified and Mandaloun, the runner-up, would be declared the winner.
Apparently, Churchill Downs treasures the Derby’s status enough to come down hard on rule breakers, even one who has stood in the winner’s circle seven times.
“I would like to be optimistic about our sport but today we are an embarrassment,” tweeted Graham Motion, who trained the 2011 Derby winner, Animal Kingdom. “Perhaps we have to hit rock bottom before things get better but we only have ourselves and the leaders of our sport to blame. For anyone that loves the sport as much as I do it’s a sad day.”
While the world waits for the second test result, expected in the coming weeks, the sport is on to Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes, where Medina Spirit will try to win the second leg of the Triple Crown and another Baffert horse, Concert Tour, will try to beat him.
No one should blame Medina Spirit for this mess. He did what horses are supposed to do — run fast.
In fact, feel sorry for him and his rider, John Velazquez, whose fourth Derby victory might be erased from the history books. Then again, Velazquez will be astride Medina Spirit on Saturday, with another chance to win.
Only in a sport with no central authority and with haphazardly enforced rules could a deal be brokered like the one Baffert made with the owners of Pimlico Race Course, the host of the Preakness: Medina Spirit can run if he tests clean on multiple blood samples and his veterinarian records are found to be in order.
Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer, declared he would not be in Baltimore because he did not want to be a distraction. Or so he said.
Of course, he has said quite a few things. Over a period of 72 hours, the trainer first insisted that there was no way Medina Spirit had tested positive, then blamed cancel culture, mysterious contamination and racing officials out to get him, and finally said, Oh yeah, we gave him the drug, but we didn’t know we were doing it.
On Tuesday, Baffert acknowledged treating Medina Spirit for a rash by using an antifungal ointment called Otomax, which — to Baffert’s professed surprise — contained betamethasone.
The failed test and Baffert’s evolving explanations have shocked casual fans, provided punch lines to hosts of late night talk shows and handed more ammunition to animal rights activists who want the sport shut down altogether.
“Look at the damage this has done to our sport,” said Arthur Hancock III, a fourth-generation horse breeder. “It’s hung a dark cloud over horse racing and a dark cloud over Kentucky.”
For more than 30 years, the Hancock family was among a core of breeders and owners who pushed the sport to crack down on a culture of doping that was enabled by lax regulation. One bill after another failed to get out of Congress, thanks to reliably consistent opposition — from horse trainers, whom the bills targeted, and from racetracks that did not want the headache of federal regulation.
So what’s the fuss over a little medication? A horse on painkillers may run all-out on an injured leg because it doesn’t feel the damage. When horses break down, there is usually no bringing them back. In Southern California, 30 horses at Santa Anita Park had to be euthanized over a six-month period starting in December 2018, inflaming animal rights activists and putting the sport in the cross-hairs of law enforcement.
To say nothing of the risk to the jockeys, who go down when their mounts do.
Last year, finally, Congress passed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which calls for a board overseen by the Federal Trade Commission to write rules and penalties to be enforced by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. The agency, which regulates Olympians and other elite athletes in the United States, revealed the cyclist Lance Armstrong’s cheating and issued him a lifetime suspension in 2012. The law will take effect July 1, 2022.
If the antidoping program were in place now, this whole circus may have been avoided.
The testing labs would have met world-class standards, would have been fast and efficient — no waiting weeks for a second test result, as we will with Medina Spirit — and would have meted out tougher penalties, especially for pain medication. Deterrents like rigorous and consistent out-of-competition testing might have kept Medina Spirit out of the Derby starting gate or ensured that he entered it clean. And Baffert, stained by four other positive drug tests racked up in a little more than a year, would be facing a 180-day suspension, according to the baseline rules.
On the morning after Medina Spirit won the Derby, well before the positive test was revealed, Amanda Simmons Luby composed a tweet thread that was as prescient as the suspicions that inspired it are heartbreaking. Luby fell in love with horse racing as a little girl reading Walter Farley’s series of “Black Stallion” books. As a young woman, she entered the thoroughbred industry, working in the stables of the Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, breaking in yearlings in Ireland and working at a stallion station in central Kentucky.
She eventually went to law school and worked as an attorney, but she has returned to the sport as a breeder. A very small breeder — she has two mares. Medina Spirit was bred by a woman with a similarly modest operation and sold as a yearling for only $1,000. His current owner, Amr Zedan of Saudi Arabia, got him for a song, $35,000. But Luby could not get excited by the colt’s victory.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Derby winner where the general public is able to celebrate the victory without reservation?” her tweet thread started.
Her unease was with Baffert, who she acknowledges is personable and perhaps the greatest trainer of all time — with a record seven Derby titles and two Triple Crowns. But she could not get past his drug violations — 30 of them.
“I call it the Lance Armstrong effect, where there’s reason to question the wins,” she told me on the phone. “We sincerely hope our champions we put on this pedestal did not get there by illicit means. I’m afraid the Lance Armstrongs permeate our industry.”
And if that is true?
Seven days before the public knew that Medina Spirit had flunked a drug test, Luby knew how high the stakes were.
“If this industry has any hope of surviving, the masses (both in & out of the sport) have to believe the playing field is fair,” she wrote on Twitter under the handle Welbourne Stud, the name of her breeding business. “A good portion of us have grave concerns that it is not. Without a well-grounded sense of fairness, why spend another dime on the sport?”
For too long, principles and good intentions have finished a distant second to winning. Let’s hope it’s not too late to flip that equation.