Bob Baffert Has Turned the Medina Spirit Controversy Into a Circus

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Medina Spirit departed Churchill Downs in a van before dawn on Monday, bound for Baltimore (a horse van, not Jeff Spicoli’s VW bus). The Kentucky Derby winner is staying ahead of the drug-testing posse, or at least ahead of the timeline for results of his split sample, after a positive test for betamethasone threw his Derby triumph into dispute.

The plan, according to trainer Bob Baffert, is to forge onward with the tainted colt in the Preakness Stakes on Saturday, the second leg of the horse racing Triple Crown. The Maryland Jockey Club put out a statement on Sunday saying that “any decision regarding the entry of Medina Spirit in the 146th Preakness Stakes will be made after review of the facts.” The Preakness postposition draw was also delayed from Monday to Tuesday at 4 p.m.

So we appear headed for a showdown of sorts at Pimlico, one that the commissioner of horse racing will be called upon to handle fairly. Ah, wait … there is no such person. One of the many flaws of a decentralized sport.

Bob Baffert and his horse Medina Spirit

Instead there will be lawyers, or at least the threat of lawyering. There will be acrimony. There may or may not be Baffert himself—there is speculation that he could send longtime assistant Jimmy Barnes to the race and watch from afar, in an attempt to de-escalate the scene around his horse.

But in the meantime, Baffert escalated the situation to circus proportions on Monday. He made the talk-show circuit and threw out some politically loaded words—“cancel culture”—and a fantastical explanation for one horse’s positive test. He told The Dan Patrick Show that a positive once resulted from a groom (who cares for the horses) urinating in a horse’s stall after taking cough syrup, and the animal then ingesting some of the straw that was urinated upon. Add that to the list of mythical “pee tapes” America would like to see.

Speaking of: None other than the 45th president of the United States weighed in on the imbroglio on Sunday. In a statement from the desk of Donald J. Trump, he said: “So now even our Kentucky Derby winner, Medina Spirit, is a junky. This is emblematic of what is happening to our Country. The whole world is laughing at us as we go to hell on our Borders, our fake Presidential Election, and everywhere else!”

(With apologies to English teachers everywhere, all spelling and capitalization is verbatim from the release.)

Trump might not have labeled Medina Spirit a junkie/junky had he known the political sentiments of the horse’s trainer. Baffert leans hard right, and I’ve heard him sing the praises of Trump while standing on the backside of Churchill Downs in years past. That might be why the trainer chose Fox News to make one of his appearances on Monday, and why he lobbed the “cancel culture” grenade at Churchill after the racetrack announced it was suspending him pending further test results.

What has continued to elude Baffert in the aftermath of Sunday morning's bombshell about Medina Spirit’s positive test is that he does not present the most compelling case for victimhood. The list of drug-related controversies hovering over his barn is getting longer, and the explanations for them are getting weaker.

Maybe 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify really did ingest straw or hay that was contaminated with jimsonweed, a naturally occurring plant that can produce a positive test for scopolamine. Other horses who ate from the same shipment of feed at Santa Anita Race Course tested positive as well.

Maybe positive tests for lidocaine from spring '20 for Charlatan and Gamine really did result from a medication patch worn by Barnes, the assistant trainer. Maybe Gamine’s positive test later in '20 for betamethasone really was the result of a legal dose of the medication that stayed in the system for a stubbornly long time. And maybe Baffert’s insistence that Medina Spirit was never treated with betamethasone is true.

But roll all those explanations together and the odds of them all being true are longer than that of 1913 Derby winner Donerail, who captured the Run for the Roses Kentucky Derby at 91–1. Baffert doesn’t seem to understand the cumulative credibility hit he’s taken. This isn’t “cancel culture"; it’s recurring cases of his horses testing positive and the public growing weary of it.

Here is why the cynicism cannot be canceled: Much the way Lance Armstrong dominated cycling when it was known to be fueled by doping, Baffert has dominated horse racing in an era of rampant drug use. Are we really supposed to believe that when positive tests are linked to the most successful guy in a drug-riddled sport, he’s actually the innocent victim of circumstance and/or sabotage? Occam’s razor—which stipulates that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex—seems to apply here.

This is very bad for the sport of horse racing, which has shown remarkable resilience in spite of itself. H. Graham Motion, trainer of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, tweeted this Sunday: “I would like to be optimistic about our sport but today we are an embarrassment. Perhaps we have to hit rock bottom before things get better but we only have ourselves and the leaders of our sport to blame. For anyone that loves the sport as much as I do it’s a sad day.”

Sunday was sad. Monday is the circus. Who knows what Tuesday has in store, as the Preakness draw awaits?

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