Thirty dead horses on a California track. Federal charges of more than two dozen trainers and veterinarians from Florida to New York to doping their animals. All in the past two and a half years.
Is there anything that 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 run of America’s greatest race, Churchill Downs officials made it clear that if a second sample confirmed the presence of betamethasone, it was a corticosteroid was injected into the joints to relieve pain and swelling, the colt would be disqualified and Mandaloun, the runner-up, would be declared the winner.
Apparently, Churchill Downs values the derby’s status so much that he cracks down on violations of the rules even after being among the winners seven times.
“I’d love to be optimistic about our sport, but today we feel embarrassed,” tweeted Graham Motion, who coached 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom. “We may have to bottom out before things get better, but we have only ourselves and the leaders of our sport to blame. It’s a sad day for everyone who loves the sport as much as I do. “
As the world waits for the second test result, expected in the coming weeks, the sport goes to Baltimore Preakness stakeswhere Medina Spirit will try to win the Triple Crown second leg and another Baffert horse, Concert Tour, will try to beat him.
Nobody should blame Medina Spirit for this mess. He did what horses were supposed to do – run fast.
In fact, you feel sorry for him and his driver John Velazquez, whose fourth Derby win may be deleted from the history books. On the other hand, Velazquez will be astride Medina Spirit on Saturday with one more chance of winning.
Only in a sport without central authority and with arbitrarily enforced rules could a deal be brokered, as Baffert made with the owners of the Pimlico Race Course, the host of Preakness: Medina Spirit, when he cleanly tests several blood samples and his veterinary documents are fine.
Baffert, the Hall of Fame coach, stated he wouldn’t be in Baltimore because he didn’t want to be a distraction. At least that’s what he said.
Of course he said a few things. For a period of 72 hours, the trainer first insisted that there was no way Medina Spirit had tested positive, then blamed the demolition culture, mysterious contamination, and race management for getting him out, and finally said, Oh yeah, We gave him the drug but we didn’t know we were going to do it.
Baffert confirmed the treatment on Tuesday Medina Spirit for skin rashes with an antifungal ointment called Otomax, which – to Baffert’s supposed surprise – contained betamethasone.
The failed test and Baffert’s evolving explanations have shocked casual fans, punching talk show hosts late into the night, and handing more ammunition to animal rights activists who want the sport to end altogether.
“Look at the damage this has done to our sport,” said Arthur Hancock III, a fourth generation horse breeder. “There is a dark cloud over horse racing and a dark cloud over Kentucky.”
For over 30 years, the Hancock family has been part of a core of breeders and owners who urged the sport to crack down on a doping culture made possible by lax regulation. One bill after the other could not get out of Congress thanks to reliably consistent opposition – from horse trainers that the bills were aimed at, and from racetracks that did not want the headaches of federal regulation.
So what’s the fuss about a little medication? A horse on pain medication can go completely out of hand on an injured leg because it does not feel the damage. When horses collapse, they are usually not brought back. In Southern California 30 horses in Santa Anita Park had to be euthanized over a period of six months from December 2018, the animal rights activists inflamed and put sport in the crosshairs of law enforcement agencies.
Not to mention the risk to the jockeys who perish if their mounts do it.
Last year Congress finally passed the law Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which calls upon a body overseen by the Federal Trade Commission to write rules and penalties to be enforced by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. The agency that regulates Olympians and other elite athletes in the United States, exposed cyclist Lance Armstrong’s scam and granted him a lifetime ban in 2012. The law comes into force on July 1, 2022.
If the anti-doping program were in place now, this whole circus might have been avoided.
The testing labs would have met world-class standards, would have been quick and efficient – no waiting weeks for a second test result like we will do at Medina Spirit – and would have imposed tougher penalties, especially for pain medication. Dissuasions like rigorous and rigorous off-competition testing could have kept Medina Spirit off the Derby starting gate or made sure he entered it clean. And Baffert, tainted by four more positive drug tests done in just over a year, would face a 180-day suspension per the ground rules.
The morning after Medina Spirit won the derby, long before the positive test was revealed, Amanda Simmons composed Luby a tweet thread that was as prescient as the suspicion that inspired it is heartbreaking. As a little girl, Luby fell in love with horse racing while reading Walter Farley’s series of “Black Stallion” books. As a young woman, she entered the thoroughbred business, worked in the stables of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, broke into Ireland for yearlings, and worked at a stallion station in central Kentucky.
She eventually went to law school and worked as a lawyer, but returned to the sport as a breeder. A very small breeder – she has two mares. Bred by a woman with a similarly humble operation, Medina Spirit was sold as a yearling for just $ 1,000. Its current owner, Amr Zedan from Saudi Arabia, got it for a song, $ 35,000. But Luby couldn’t be happy about the stallion’s victory.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Derby winner where the general public can celebrate the win without reservation?” Your tweet thread started.
Her discomfort was with Baffert, who is considered personable and perhaps the greatest coach of all time – with a record of seven Derby titles and two triple crowns. But she couldn’t overcome his drug injuries – 30 of them.
“I call it the Lance Armstrong Effect, where there is reason to question the victories,” she told me on the phone. “We sincerely hope that our champions who we put on this podium did not get there by illegal means. I’m afraid the Lance Armstrongs permeate our industry. “
And if that’s true?
Seven days before the public knew Medina Spirit had failed a drug test, Luby knew the stakes.
“If this industry has any hope of survival, the masses (both inside and outside the sport) must believe that the playing field is fair,” she said wrote on Twitter under the handle Welbourne Stud, the name of their breeding company. “A large part of us have serious concerns that this is not the case. Why should you spend a penny on sport without a solid sense of fairness? “
For too long, principles and good intentions have ended a distant second after victory. Let’s hope it’s not too late to turn this equation around.