Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 16, 2021

Horse Racing Dodges A Bullet, But Can’t Get Out Of Its Own Way

That sound emanating from the old racetrack tucked away in the northwest corner of Baltimore early Saturday evening was not the roar of a crowd.  After all, with attendance for the 146th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course limited to 10,000 fans, less than a tenth of the normal turnout for the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, only so much noise could be made.  No, what hung in the air was not the collective shout of a grandstand full of cheering customers, growing like rolling thunder from an approaching storm.  It was more akin to the soft rustle of a springtime breeze moving through a newly leafed copse of oaks and elms.  The sound, coming from horse racing insiders, was a massive sigh of relief.

For much of this year’s Preakness, Larry Collmus’s call on NBC’s race coverage echoed his report from Churchill Downs two weeks ago.  Just like at the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit broke cleanly and under the firm hand of veteran jockey John Velazquez moved to the lead as the ten-horse field raced to the clubhouse turn.  As in Louisville, Medina Spirit stayed in front as the race proceeded down the back stretch and around the far turn.  The horse had led from gate to wire to win the Derby, and once again that was Velazquez’s plan.  It was a logical approach given Medina Spirit’s record, which included three victories from the front and three second place finishes in races where other horses had taken the early lead.  As Joe Drape, who has covered horse racing for the New York Times for more than two decades, so accurately put it, the horse “has done nothing but run fast.  It is a shame he is shrouded in controversy.”

But Medina Spirit and trainer Bob Baffert were fully enmeshed in controversy, in the form of a failed post-race drug test following the Derby, and it clung to the race leader with a weight far greater than the requisite 126 pounds as the horses turned for home.  In the midst of what should be the brief annual moment in the sun for a sport that is generally consigned to the twilight fringe of our games, the focus of both fans and the media was not on the Triple Crown or Medina Spirit’s chances of capturing all three of its constituent races, but on a laboratory report documenting 21 picograms of betamethasone in a blood sample drawn from the horse after it was draped with the traditional blanket of roses in the Churchill Downs winner’s circle.  It was a story only made larger by Baffert’s bizarre initial response, and one that ultimately reminded fans of all that is wrong with horse racing in America.

One week after the Kentucky Derby victory, Baffert announced he had been informed of the test results.  Officials at Churchill Downs suspended Baffert’s stable from racing at the track and said that the Derby results would be set aside, making second place finisher Mandaloun the winner, if a second sample taken at the same time and subject to independent testing showed the same result.  But Baffert insisted that Medina Spirit had never been treated with the drug, which is allowed as a therapeutic medication between races, but forbidden above very low threshold levels on race days, because the anti-inflammatory also masks pain making it more likely that horses will run when they shouldn’t.  He then went on, in interviews following his initial announcement, to blame everything from cancel culture to the possibility of unnamed conspirators seeking to besmirch him because of his prominence.

Except that Baffert doesn’t really need shadowy individuals doing him dirt, as he is able to pile plenty on himself.  Easily the most recognizable figure in the sport, his horses have been cited for drug violations thirty times over the years, including on five occasions in a recent thirteen-month span.  Like most big-time trainers, he contests every violation by all available means.  While that is his right, the slow appeals process of most state racing commissions means that public attention has long since moved on by the time a final determination is made.  Even where rulings result in suspensions, the lack of a central nationwide authority over horse racing means that any trainer can simply take his or her stable to another state and race there while waiting out a ban.

That will change when federal legislation passed last year finally takes effect in July 2022.  The Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act centralizes drug enforcement for the sport with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.  The USADA is immediately familiar to anyone who followed the career of Lance Armstrong, among others.  To his credit, Baffert supported passage of the new law.  Then again, when he was under the spotlight for that recent surge of drug violations, Baffert announced he was hiring a prominent veterinarian to oversee compliance for his huge, far-flung, stable.  Largely lost in this week’s focus on Medina Spirit was a statement from Baffert’s attorney conceding that the vet was never put on Baffert’s payroll.

Whether it was the weight of controversy or running with just two week’s rest for the first time in its life or just a day when another horse was faster, in the end both Midnight Bourbon, who went off as the second choice of bettors, and the 11-1 longshot Rombauer, ran past Medina Spirit in the deep stretch.  A few strides further Rombauer, rolling down the middle of the lane like an express train at speed, finished the upset.  It came after Baffert, in a follow-up to his “it couldn’t have been me” interview tour, announced that for several weeks prior to the Derby, Medina Spirit had been treated for dermatitis with an ointment containing betamethasone.  But even while revealing the most likely source of the banned drug, he preached patience on waiting for the results of the second test, still potentially weeks away, and gave no indication he would quietly accept having the Kentucky Derby victory set aside.

Had Medina Spirit hung on, the sport would have gone to Belmont Park and its self-named preeminent race with this debacle still the lede, and the very real possibility of a Triple Crown decided not at the wire of the massive Long Island oval, but in a courtroom months or even years from now.  No wonder that so many whose lives and livelihoods revolve around racing exhaled with relief when the results of the Preakness became official.  But no one should think horse racing’s problems are over.  For after the last two weeks, the reaction of casual fans to the results of even the biggest races is likely to be, “why should we care?”

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