Medina Spirit returns Sunday at Del Mar in the Shared Belief Stakes. And what will greet him? Consternation? Skepticism? Perplexity? He deserves better than that, for he’s clearly one of the best horses of his generation. But certain to return with him is the controversy surrounding his Kentucky Derby (G1) first-place finish, along with the daunting question: “How many picograms can dance on the head of a pin?”
Just to refresh memories: After the Derby, Medina Spirit tested positive for 21 picograms per milliliter of blood or plasma of betamethasone, which is a regulated corticosteriod commonly used to treat joint inflammation, but which in Kentucky is not allowed at any level on race days. The incident quickly became shark chum. Speaking Thursday from California, Baffert said he was very surprised by how subsequent events unfolded.
Based just on the reaction since the positive test became public, you might have thought Baffert had been caught injecting a horse with a combination of heroin and nitroglycerin. Owners for whom he had won a Kentucky Derby suddenly moved their horses out of his barn; Churchill Downs Incorporated, for whom he had been a conspicuous and joyful ambassador for years, banned him for two years after the split sample confirmed the presence of betamethasone at 25 picograms per milliliter of blood or plasma citing his “record of testing failures” as part of its reasoning. And without a semblance of due process, the New York Racing Association, which celebrated more than anybody Baffert’s two Triple Crown winners, temporarily suspended him. (A U.S. District judge ruled for a preliminary injunction against the suspension.) The whole situation highlighted many embarrassing and shameful problems in racing.
Horse racing does a very poor job of distinguishing between parking violations and armed robbery. And, make no mistake, 21 picograms of betamethasone is a parking violation, especially if the medication originated in an ointment being used to treat a skin rash as Baffert maintains.
On the other hand, horse racing’s regulators and so-called leaders, like bureaucrats everywhere, do an excellent job of justifying their roles and their very existence. Bureaucrats charged with solving a problem never say there’s no problem. The school superintendent never says the schools have all the resources they need; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff never says the military requires no more weapons because the world is relatively free of crisis; the police chief never says crime is under control. And the nation’s racing commissioners, regulators and so-called leaders will never ever say the sport doesn’t have a drug problem. Their self-interest is institutionalized. And they’re supported by horse racing’s Praetorian Guard, a cartel of prominent owners and breeders that only guards its own power and interests, believing them synonymous with the sport’s.
“We’ll get through this,” Baffert said. “We have to go through the process…. I’ll be glad when all the facts come out. We didn’t inject that horse with anything. I feel bad for Medina Spirit because he runs so hard. He ran his ass off in the Derby.”
Baffert said this Derby began as if it might be the most enjoyable in his career. He felt, he said, no pressure. Coming in “under the radar,” he didn’t feel the pressure of having a favorite or the pressure of struggling to win his first Derby. Medina Spirit was training and doing well, and so Baffert thought the colt could “hit the board.”
But when Rock Your World (who’s also entered in the Shared Belief) broke a step slowly and got bumped around, Medina Spirit found himself on the lead, and from there, well, “he ran his ass off,” turning away Mandaloun in the stretch and winning by a half-length — and the performance had nothing to do with 21 picograms.
Two weeks later, at Pimlico, he led the way for about a mile but then faltered, finishing 5 1/2 lengths behind Rombauer in third. Medina Spirit, Baffert explained, is not a robust horse. He’s naturally light, doesn’t carry much weight, and he just couldn’t come back in two weeks with another superlative performance. Nevertheless, he has accomplished much, never finishing worse than third. And having been “freshened up,” he looks “very good” and ready.
Last Sunday, he worked five-eighths of a mile with Ax Man at Del Mar, completing the distance in :58.60 seconds and getting the better of his older stablemate, who’s a multiple stakes winner of $363,797. Baffert said Medina Spirit “went a little faster” than wanted. But he came out of it in good order and remains aimed at the Shared Belief, which could serve as perfect preparation for the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (G1) on Sept. 25. And it’s hoped he’ll be greeted in Pennsylvania with appreciation.
Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.