Bob Baffert's Weekend at Pimlico Didn't Offer Vindication, Only More Questions

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The highlight of Bob Baffert’s weekend was an absence of positive drug tests for his horses. Whether it’s coincidence or not, all four of the star trainer’s runners at Pimlico Race Course who passed those tests also lost.

That most notably included Medina Spirit, 2021 Kentucky Derby winner (for now). Sent off with a clean testing slate and 5-2 odds in the Preakness, Medina Spirit faded in the stretch for the first time in his career and finished third behind long shot Rombauer and Midnight Bourbon. The horse’s fighting spirit was attributed many times after the Derby as the reason why he’d never been passed late in a race; Saturday in Baltimore, Medina Spirit was passed like he was running in quicksand.

Bob Baffert led Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit back to the barn on the morning after the race. Medina Spirit is Baffert's seventh Kentucky Derby winner.

Baffert’s other horse in the race, Concert Tour, was sent off as the 7-2 third choice. He was close to Medina Spirit’s moderate pace through the first three-fourths of the race, then backed up badly coming off the turn and into the stretch. Concert Tour finished ninth in the 10-horse field, beaten by 34 lengths. "I am at a loss for words,” said Concert Tour’s jockey, Mike Smith. “He didn’t seem to participate at all down the backside. He just wasn’t going anywhere and when I put my hands down he just backed right off, it was very strange.”

Baffert started the day Saturday with heavy favorite Hozier in the Sir Barton Stakes. Sent off at 3-5, Hozier was beaten by The King Cheek in a stretch duel. And on Friday, 2-1 favorite Beautiful Gift’s performance in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes was similar to Concert Tour’s Preakness, going from well-positioned entering the stretch to badly beaten. She finished seventh in a 10-horse field.

That’s either a brutal weekend of racing luck—which can happen—or it’s something else. Baffert’s horses were closely monitored and rigorously tested … and then thoroughly beaten.

Again, it could be coincidental. But there will be many who wonder if there is a correlation. The cloud from Kentucky will continue to linger over Baffert’s barn.

At least horse racing has been spared a Medina Spirit Triple Crown* bid. Frankly, that’s a break the sport doesn’t really merit since it has chronically failed to properly address its medication issues. Being forced to confront the specter of a Derby winner facing disqualification for a week in New York prior to the Belmont could have been exactly what racing deserved.

Now that goes away, and we’ll wait to see whether Medina Spirit’s Derby victory goes away as well. And, ultimately, what becomes of Bob Baffert—the face of the sport and also a lightning rod for controversy, as high-profile drug positives have piled up alongside big victories in recent years.

If the split sample from Medina Spirit comes back positive, his name will be taken off the paddock facade at Churchill Downs and his victory voided. Baffert’s Churchill suspension—which he criticized bitterly—undoubtedly will be upheld as well. If the suspension moves from indefinite to definite, the length of it will be an indication of how mortified the people who run America’s greatest race are with a trainer sullying it.

Baffert wisely stayed away from Pimlico all week, and wisely stayed away from live microphones after coming off poorly last Sunday and Monday in discussing Medina Spirit’s positive test. He issued a lengthy statement to NBC Sports before the Preakness and it sounded thoroughly lawyered.

“As Medina Spirit prepares to run in the Preakness Stakes today, I want to keep the focus on this amazing equine athlete and not me, which is the primary reason I will not personally be in attendance,” the statement said. “I do not want to serve as a distraction to what has always been of paramount importance—the joy of this great sport and the horses that make it possible.

“As I have stated from the beginning, there was never any attempt to game or cheat the system and Medina Spirit earned his Kentucky Derby win. While the presence of 21 picograms of an allowable therapeutic medication has yet to be confirmed by the split sample analysis, it would have nothing to do with Medina Spirit’s hard earned and deserved win. That win was the result of the horse’s tremendous heart and nothing else.”

Medina Spirit’s heart shrank three sizes Saturday, it seemed.

Jockey John Velazquez rode this race almost identically to the Derby, going directly to the lead and setting sensible fractions of 46.93 seconds for the half-mile and 1:10.97 for three-quarters of a mile. In the Derby those numbers were 46.70 and 1:11.21. But instead of holding off all challengers in the stretch like he did at Churchill, Medina Spirit first gave way to Midnight Bourbon and then to Rombauer, who came roaring by.

rombauer:preakness

Winning jockey Flavien Prat keeps finding his way onto the right side of controversial races. He was the jockey aboard Country House in the 2019 Derby when Maximum Security was disqualified for interference, elevating Prat’s horse to the winner’s circle. This time he wins a Triple Crown race in a more conventional manner. “It’s a lot different when you cross the wire first,” Prat said.

Maybe the big effort in Louisville took the stamina out of Medina Spirit. But Midnight Bourbon contested the Derby as well and had more in the tank late. (Rombauer last raced April 3 in the Blue Grass Stakes, skipping the Kentucky Derby at the insistence of owner John Fradkin and over the objections of trainer Michael McCarthy.)

Then there is the fact that Baffert’s Derby winners had been five-for-five in the Preakness when contested two weeks later. Baffert himself has said that the fittest horse on the first Saturday in May (when the Derby is run) is highly likely to still be the fittest horse on the third Saturday (date of the Preakness).

So let’s just say this was an unusual performance for a Baffert-trained Derby winner, and an unusual fade by a horse who appeared to be sitting in prime position to win again.

If Bob Baffert has been unfairly maligned, as he clearly believes, the weekend at Pimlico didn’t offer any vindication or validation. Only more questions. The man who has ruled horse racing for a quarter century is now in a position of having to prove himself all over again.

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