By Ed McNamara
Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit faces possible disqualification because of a drug positive. Bob Baffert, America’s most prominent trainer, could be denied his record-breaking seventh win in our national race. A Churchill Downs statement said, “given the seriousness of the alleged offense, it will immediately suspend Bob Baffert from entering any horses.”
Which calls to mind a line from the Derby’s beloved anthem: “Then my old Kentucky home, good night.”
Baffert announced Sunday morning that Medina Spirit’s postrace sample from the May 1 Derby showed traces of the regulated anti-inflammatory betamethasone, a corticosteroid. Betamethasone is a commonly used medication to treat inflammation in joints, usually by injection.
“We did not give it to him,” Baffert said at a news conference outside his barn at Churchill. “Medina Spirit never has been treated with betamethasone. I don’t know how it got into his system, but we’re going to get to the bottom of it.”
The only postrace DQ in the Derby occurred in 1968, when Dancer’s Image was taken down because of a disputed positive for the anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone, commonly known as bute.
The 68-year-old Hall of Famer said that while on his way to the airport Saturday afternoon in California, assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes called from Louisville. Barnes said he’d just been served notice by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission that Medina Spirit’s sample came back positive for 21 picograms of the medication. (A picogram is one trillionth of a gram, according to dictionary.com.)
“Jimmy said he had some horrible news for me,” Baffert said. “I got the biggest gut punch in racing for something I didn’t do. It’s a complete injustice. This shouldn’t have happened.
“I don’t feel embarrassed, I feel like I was wronged. Why is this happening to me? There’s something wrong in racing, but it’s not Bob Baffert.”
The finding must be confirmed by a split sample, which if positive would make runner-up Mandaloun the winner of the 147th Derby. Two years ago, first-place Derby finisher Maximum Security was placed 17th for interference after a 22-minute stewards’ inquiry, handing the trophy to 65-1 shot Country House.
Baffert promised to investigate the situation thoroughly. “I don’t know what’s going on,” he said, “but there’s something that’s not right.”
Baffert, usually the picture of cool, was agitated at the 18-minute news conference.
“People knew about this before I found out,” he said. “That’s very disturbing. I’m still trying to absorb it. It’s not official until the split sample comes. We haven’t even got to that yet. Usually we wait for that, but I wanted to get in front of it.”
Kentucky rules allow betamethasone for therapeutic use, but not for at least 14 days before race day. Any level detected after a race is consideration a violation.
If the split sample confirms the result, it would be Baffert’s fifth drug violation within the past year. The Arkansas Racing Commission reversed two of them last month.
Baffert said Medina Spirit and Concert Tour, a disappointing third at odds-on in the Arkansas Derby, would be vanned from Louisville to Baltimore on Monday (May 10). He plans to run both in Saturday’s 146th Preakness Stakes, which will be overshadowed by racing’s latest drug controversy.
The Maryland Jockey Club, which oversees racing in Maryland, issued a statement Sunday saying it will “review the relevant facts and information relating to the reported medication positive as a result of the post-race blood sample testing completed by Churchill Downs … “and any decision regarding the entry of Medina Spirit in the 146th Preakness Stakes will be made after review of the facts.”
Baffert has a record-tying seven wins in the Preakness, which he considers his favorite Triple Crown event because of Pimlico’s more relaxed atmosphere. That won’t be the case this week, for him or for the sport.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.