The Kentucky Derby has had a rough two years. In 2020, the race was postponed due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic, disrupting a 144-year run of competition and a 73-year record of holding the race on the first Saturday of May. The race was eventually rescheduled for September, but the year 2020 had already gone down in the Derby history books. With the slow return to normalcy, the 2021 Derby was supposed to be regularly scheduled programming. And it certainly seemed like it at first. On May 1, trainer Bob Baffert, the sport’s reigning king and most visible personality, won his record seventh Derby with Medina Spirit. All seemed to be business as usual. Until Medina Spirit failed a post-race drug test, throwing the horse’s––and Baffert’s––title into question.
On May 9, Hall-of-Famer Baffert announced that the three-year-old colt had tested positive for betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory corticosteroid sometimes used to relieve joint pain in horses. Betamethasone is allowed in miniscule amounts in Kentucky racing, but post race testing detected 21 picograms per milliliter, which is more than double what’s permissible. A second test will now be conducted with a new blood sample, and if the original results are confirmed, Medina Spirit will officially be disqualified and second-place finisher Mandaloun will be crowned. It is not known when the second test results will be released, but in the meantime, Churchill Downs, the racing complex that hosts the Derby, has suspended Baffert from entering any horses at the racetrack until the investigation concludes.
Baffert immediately went on the defense, initially denying that there could be any betamethasone in the horse’s system, and further insinuating that the investigation was some sort of witch hunt (after all, why should he be singled out in a sport with numerous offending parties?). With his wispy white bangs, trademark sunglasses and his presence a staple at every Triple Crown race, Baffert is Grade I racing’s superstar and has the outrageous personality to match––a personality that has been on full display the past few days. From suggesting that a horse groomer took cough medicine and urinated on hay that Medina Spirit eventually ate to then blaming “cancel culture” for his banishment, the bizarreness of the whole ordeal no doubt reminded some of another cuckoo white man who used to dominate headlines (That same cuckoo white man also had something to say about the controversy, calling Medina Spirit a “junky” and that what happened is somehow evidence of how the United States is going to hell without him). Baffert did relent on Tuesday, saying that after talking with equine pharmacology experts, it is possible that the horse tested positive because of an antifungal ointment containing the drug that was used on the horse shortly before the race. Findings of the investigation might not be finalized for weeks, so until then Baffert will be banned and Medina Spirit’s title will be in limbo.
Although the gravity of a Derby winner being disqualified for a positive drug test is great (especially since it hasn’t happened since 1968), it wouldn’t have been nearly as damning if it hadn’t happened to the sport’s sacred son Baffert, or if this hadn’t been Baffert’s fifth medication violation in the past 13 months. In a sport riddled with doping in order to keep horses running through injuries, and with no centralized regulating authority, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the biggest name in the sport was also partaking in the sport’s open dirty secret. It seems Baffert’s excuses are appearing thinner and more outlandish as the accusations continue to grow, and why shouldn’t they? Regardless of whether investigations were run by state governments or individual racing tracks, flimsy excuses have been enough to absolve trainers of blame. When 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify tested positive for scopolamine at Santa Anita Race Course, an investigation found that his hay was contaminated with naturally-occurring jimsonweed, which could skew testing. Then, positive lidocaine tests for horses Charlatan and Gamine in 2020 were said to be due to a patch that an assistant trainer wore. And when Gamine again tested positive, this time for bethamasadone, it was concluded that it was simply an unfortunate case of slow metabolism. That is a lot of strange answers from and accepted by the supposed gold standard of the sport, whose integrity is really starting to be questioned.
Medina Spirit will still be running in the next Triple Crown race on May 15, the Preakness Stakes, despite all the investigations. Baffert has chosen not to attend, stating he does not want to be a distraction, and instead his longtime assistant will take his place. Baffert has agreed to prerace blood testing and monitoring in order for Medina Spirit to compete. Even with Baffert not attending, all attention will be on both him and his horse––during the race, and of course, after. Still, the coverage of the scandal will undoubtedly increase viewership, and bets, for the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes after. Leave it to Bob Baffert to continue elevating his sport, even when he is increasingly being cast as the villain. And that’s why he has the crown.