Churchill Downs Has Pronounced That America's Biggest Race Is Bigger Than Its Biggest Trainer
“YOU have meddled with the primal forces of nature. And YOU will atone.” —Arthur Jensen in Network
Jensen’s character in the Oscar-winning 1976 movie was vividly played by Louisville native Ned Beatty, and let’s just say that Churchill Downs Incorporated channeled its homeboy’s famous on-screen screed when it addressed thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert on Wednesday.
Baffert has meddled with the primal force that is the Kentucky Derby. And he will atone.
Churchill’s two-year suspension of Baffert was its own thunderous pronouncement that the U.S.’s biggest race is bigger than the U.S.’s biggest trainer. Its cumulative 147-year history outweighs one man’s record-setting place in Derby lore. Its iconic status means more than the most recognizable figure in the sport.
Dogged by positive drug tests, Baffert officially is uninvited to the 2022 and ’23 Derbies. The race will go on without the seven-time (for now) winner. Something in the neighborhood of 150,000 people will attend. Mint juleps will be consumed, ornate hats will be worn, bets will be made. The Derby will survive and indeed thrive regardless of who is involved in the actual two-minute race.
This was a powerful preemptive shot from Churchill. The track is not waiting for a Kentucky Horse Racing Commission disqualification ruling on Derby winner Medina Spirit’s positive drug tests before taking action against the colt’s trainer. And it is not messing around with some half-measure punishment that would invite an awkward first Saturday in May the next two years, when the legal fight over Medina Spirit’s Derby status might still be ongoing.
The racetrack’s fury toward Baffert is barely concealed. Not only is Churchill aghast at having its signature event sullied by just the second potential drug DQ in history (and first since 1968), it assuredly is displeased at how this has played out.
Baffert’s legal team was the entity disclosing both of Medina Spirit’s positive tests. The initial bombshell was dropped eight days after the race, at an impromptu press conference in front of Baffert’s barn on the Churchill backside, and the second came Wednesday via attorney Clark Brewster. In an effort to shape the narrative, Baffert and his attorneys took the news out of Churchill’s control and spun it their way.
The spin from Brewster on Wednesday was this: Medina Spirit’s positive tests for betamethasone, an allowable drug that has to be out of a horse’s system by race day, were an innocent mistake. They were attributable to a topical corticosteroid, not an attempt to dope the animal. Brewster said the positive test did not come from an injection of the drug, which is common practice to alleviate swelling and discomfort in the joints and would be the more likely means of gaming the system. “It’s the salve,” Brewster told Sports Illustrated on Wednesday. “Not the injectables.”
I ran this by a longtime track veterinarian Wednesday, and he was unconvinced. “The chances of an ointment being absorbed through the skin and creating a positive is not likely,” he said.
Brewster said he is looking forward to making that case before the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which will rule on whether to disqualify Medina Spirit. Essentially, there is an attempt to kick up a dust cloud of details that would obfuscate the bottom line: The horse tested positive for a banned substance, and it’s the fifth time Baffert has had a positive test with a high-profile horse in the last year.
“My personal opinion is that he pushed the envelope,” said the vet. “The industry is trying to clean itself up, and you’ve got a guy like this. The guy’s credibility is totally shot. He’s got five positives, so it’s not like, ‘Woe is me.’ Did anybody else test positive in the Derby?”
The answer appears to be no. Thus there should be no obfuscating. No excuse-making. No maneuvering for mercy. The test results are the test results and the rules are the rules, so we’re done here.
Except we’re not done here, because in horse racing the dispute rarely ends when the lab tests come back. And it sure won’t end here when the biggest prize in American racing is at stake. If you thought it took a long time (one month) for the testing results to be completed, wait until the lawyers are fully engaged.
For now, Churchill and its affiliated racetracks have taken a hard line on Baffert. So has the New York Racing Association, which indefinitely suspended him in May and effectively precluded him from entering Medina Spirit in the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown that will be contested Saturday. But in the Balkanized world of racing, where there is no central leadership and no agreement on how to run the sport, Baffert is free to compete in other locales—most notably his home base of California.
Part and parcel of this patchwork sport is an inconsistent set of medication rules. The easiest way to fix those inconsistencies is to adopt the stance of several other countries—no medication, period. The old saying is “hay, water and oats.” Those are the only things that go into race horses in many places overseas.
But at the very least, consistency is the key. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority has been created to help make that happen. Fortuitously, HISA chairman Charlie Scheeler met with media members Wednesday, a session planned independently of the Medina Spirit news.
“One of the problems is that you have different types of penalties in different states for betamethasone, and we really need to have a uniform system,” Scheeler said. “I think it’s very confusing to the public that certain levels of different medications are allowed in some jurisdictions and not others, particularly because in this era horses travel and they compete in any number of jurisdictions.
“I think what we will bring to the table that I think would be very helpful in this type of situation is that the public is going to know that the rules are going to be the same for every Triple Crown race. The tolerances will be the same, the permitted substances will be the same and we’ll also be testing in the same fashion.”
National uniformity would be great. While waiting for that to happen, racetracks must make their own statements about what they will and won’t tolerate. Churchill Downs spoke forcefully Wednesday, demanding that Bob Baffert atone for meddling with the primal force that is the Kentucky Derby.
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