BALTIMORE – Even though Bob Baffert isn't at Pimlico Race Course this week, his shadow hangs over the Preakness, the Triple Crown and horse racing.
This should have been another celebration of Baffert, the face of the sport with two Triple Crown triumphs on his resume, coming off an upset win at the Kentucky Derby and looking for a record eighth Preakness victory. Instead, Derby winner Medina Spirit failing a postrace drug test for the steroid betamethasone has put Baffert and the sport in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
“The whole atmosphere here has changed,” rival trainer and friend D. Wayne Lukas said Wednesday. “The enthusiasm, the feel of excitement is not here. That’s what’s bad for the industry right there.”
Lukas tried to talk Baffert into traveling to Baltimore for the Preakness to saddle Medina Spirit and Concert Tour. Instead, Baffert's horses are under the watchful eye of assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes and Maryland Racing Commission officials who set conditions for additional testing and monitoring for them to be allowed to run Saturday.
If three rounds of testing come back clean, Medina Spirit will likely be favored in the Preakness and, if successful, would be two-thirds of the way to Baffert's third Triple Crown in six years — albeit with a giant asterisk.
“It certainly has altered the dynamic of the Preakness considerably,” NBC Sports analyst Randy Moss said. “It’s gone from a warm and fuzzy, feel-good story about a tenacious $1,000 yearling who somehow defied the odds to win the Kentucky Derby into the depths of where no one in horse racing likes to see it go.”
Rather than Baffert holding court outside the stakes barn at Pimlico in his trademark sunglasses and chatting with Lukas, it was Barnes tersely ending a short interview session after “no comment” replies when asked about his boss's mindset and whether Medina Spirit was still being treated for a skin condition, which caused the horse to be given an antifungal ointment that Baffert said Tuesday was a possible source of the steroid.
Plenty of others, however, want to talk about the medication violation, Baffert's fifth in a little over a year.
Activist Marty Irby of Animal Wellness Action said, "Baffert should be extraordinarily alert to all substances that go into horses under his control” and recommended a zero-tolerance policy for drugging violations.
While this is not intentional doping with performance-enhancing drugs like the charges facing indicted trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro, it's another blotch on Baffert's record that in a best-case scenario shows his barn doesn't pay close enough attention to the medications being given to top-notch racehorses.
“The fact that he didn’t know and he didn't mean for it to be in the horse, that doesn’t change for an instant the fact that it was in the horse,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, executive director of the Racing Medication & Testing Consortium. “The fact that he didn’t mean to break the rule doesn’t mean that he didn’t break a rule.”
Betamethasone, a therapeutic drug that can help horses' joints, was also found in Baffert's 2020 Kentucky Oaks-winning filly Gamine, who along with colt Charlatan tested positive for the painkiller lidocaine last year in Arkansas. Another Baffert-trained horse, Merneith, tested positive for a cough suppressant after racing July 25 at Del Mar in California.
Baffert in November vowed to “do better,” hiring a veterinarian for extra oversight and saying, “I intend to do everything possible to ensure I receive no further medication complaints.”
Then one happened on horse racing's biggest stage.
“Somehow, here we are again,” Moss said. “A lot of people in racing are sort of scratching their heads as to why this would repeatedly happen to one guy.”
Lukas said Baffert has “been hit with some circumstances that are uncontrollable.” While Irby and others point to the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act that goes into effect in July 2022 as an opportunity to better police drugs in horses, the 85-year-old Hall of Fame trainer thinks it should raise the threshold “to what's realistic” for therapeutic medications above the 21 picograms Medina Spirit tested positive for.
Baffert has repeatedly emphasized that a picogram is a trillionth of one gram to explain how little of the substance was discovered in the test, saying, “Horse racing must address its regulatory problem when it comes to substances which can innocuously find their way into a horse’s system at the picogram level."
Regardless of the amount, Medina Spirit will be disqualified from the Kentucky Derby if a second test also comes back positive. And if anything shows up in Maryland's additional testing, Medina Spirit will be scratched from the Preakness.
None of it is what Baffert and those in horse racing want to be worried about at the time of year when the sport gets the most attention. Perhaps that's why Lukas wishes he was still on the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission that will decide the fate of Baffert and his latest champion.
“I would absolutely today tell my colleagues that we need to just dismiss this, throw it out, put the Derby winner back on the throne and move on,” he said. “Obviously (21) picograms or whatever that horse had had no effect on the race or his performance. And every vet and every scientist and every lab will tell you that. You almost think the lab should probably have poured it down the sink in the first place.”
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