So much for fairytales.
When Medina Spirit won the 147th Kentucky Derby on May 1, it sounded exactly like the kind of feel-good, underdog story that thoroughbred racing so desperately needs to woo back the casual fan for so long lost to the sport.
Yes, his trainer was Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, who became the winningest trainer in Derby history when Medina Spirit edged out fellow longshot Mandaloun to give him his record seventh Derby victory.
From that standpoint, calling Medina Spirit's Derby victory a Cinderella story — which Baffert actually did — was kind of like labeling an Alabama football national championship under coach Nick Saban a Cinderella triumph.
But this was also a smallish colt that had originally sold for but $1,000 as a yearling, then resold for all of $37,000 as a two-year-old. In the Sport of Kings he was a pauper, which might be why he went off at 12-1 that day at Churchill Downs despite being ridden by three-time Derby winning jockey John Velazquez and trained by Baffert.
So when the horse won, Baffert talked endlessly about the colt's big heart, how much he'd always fought to hold a lead, how he reminded him of his first Derby winner Silver Charm, which barely missed winning the Triple Crown in 1997.
It all sounded just like the kind of story certain to charm and interest those who'd never previously paid much attention to the sport, along with those soured by its recent troubles — everything from 30 horses dying in a brief span of time at California's Santa Anita track without a consistent explanation, to the doping scandals that have plagued the sport for years, if not decades.
Then came Sunday and news that not only had Medina Spirit tested positive for the anti-inflammatory steroid betamethasone, but that Baffert was banned from Churchill Downs until the issue is resolved.
Last August, Kentucky passed a rule that any detectable amount of betamethasone in race testing is a violation. As a treatment, the drug is legal under the state's racing rules, though it must be cleared 14 days before a horse races. For now, as Baffert appeals the positive test, part of the original sample will be tested again. If it is again positive, Medina Spirit could be disqualified and Mandaloun declared the winner.
A friend of mine who's been a horse trainer for close to 40 years is no fan of Baffert's. That said, he admitted on Monday that Baffert may be a victim of the horse's body simply retaining a very small amount of the steroid longer than most horses would.
"When you're talking about 21 picograms (the amount that the test showed, which is roughly twice the legal limit on a race day), you're talking about an infinitesimal trace amount of the drug," my friend said. "If it was just a little slower than normal to leave the horse's system, he could easily test positive for that much. That doesn't mean they were trying to do anything wrong. If they'd been trying to get an edge, there should have been much more than that in his system."
The problem for Baffert is at least two-fold, if not more.
For starters, he's had five horses fail drug tests in a little over a year. Second, he's already on record over the past two days as saying the horse has never taken betamethasone, even though that's the same drug that got his fleet filly Gamine disqualified from last September's Kentucky Oaks and earned the trainer a $1,500 fine.
More troublesome is Baffert's overall past, which includes his horses testing positive more than 30 times over the last three decades.
So when he whined to Fox News on Monday morning, "We live in a different world now ... This America is different and it was like a 'cancel culture' kind of thing," it tended to sound more like a non-denial denial than a real denial.
But the most disturbing evidence against Baffert may have taken place in April of 2018, when his eventual Triple Crown-winning horse, Justify, tested positive for scopolamine — a banned substance that veterinarians say can enhance performance, especially in the amount that was found in the horse — following his Santa Anita Derby win, which he needed to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
Had that positive test been made public, he would have been disqualified from the Kentucky Derby. Instead, the California Horse Racing Board sat on the tests results until after Justify had won the Triple Crown and those who owned him had sold him for $60 million. Then the board declined to discipline him for reasons that remain vague and questionable.
As reported later by the New York Times, the chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, Chuck Winner, owns an interest in horses trained by Baffert. The horse was also partially owned by an equine investment fund with ties to the billionaire investor George Soros.
Anybody smell a cover-up?
As he's tried to spin all of this in his favor the past 48 hours as it pertains to Medina Spirit — who was shipped to Pimlico on Monday without knowing if the horse will be allowed to race in this weekend's Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown — the 68-year-old Baffert has said, "I'm worried about our sport. Our sport, we've taken a lot of hits as a sport. These are pretty serious accusations here."
Serious enough, if proven true, that Baffert should worry about his spot in his sport's Hall of Fame being canceled, and possibly his career in general.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.