A long time ago, I composed a 50-point plan to improve horse racing’s future prospects. One of the most important ones was also probably the simplest one on the list. It was two words, and comprised a philosophy that racing had yet to embrace at that time.
You know why I’m writing this column. It was announced Sunday morning that Medina Spirit, the winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby, tested positive for a banned substance. We’re now playing the waiting game as a split sample gets tested. If that comes back positive as well, we’ll see just the second medication-based disqualification in Derby history.
When trainer Bob Baffert was reached for comment on the situation, he denied giving Medina Spirit the illegal substance.
“I don’t know what is going on in racing right now but there is something not right,” he said to reporters Sunday. “I don’t feel embarrassed, I feel like I was wronged.”
This is consistent with his responses to situations involving top-tier horses such as Justify, Gamine, and Charlatan, among others, all of whom tested positive and have largely had those situations swept under the rug. In the latter two cases, the Arkansas Racing Commission recently overturned rulings made by its own stewards and reinstated victories for those two horses. Justify, meanwhile, tested positive for scopolamine following the 2018 Santa Anita Derby, but was not disqualified, either immediately after the test results came in or after lengthy legal proceedings stemming from a lawsuit filed by Bolt d’Oro’s owner/trainer, Mick Ruis.
I’m not a vet. If you’re looking for a detailed analysis of the substance Medina Spirit tested positive for, you’re going to need to look elsewhere. What I am is a lifelong racing fan, a handicapper since I was in middle school (for better or for worse), and someone with a career in marketing and communications that can provide some insight into how this will go over with the people racing needs in order to survive.
Spoiler alert: It’s not going over well.
Many in racing want the sport to be mainstream, as it was many years ago. As Alicia Hughes, a friend of mine and one of the best writers in the game, continually points out, this means an acceptance of criticism and coverage that is good, bad, and indifferent. Right now, what we have are a bunch of people who are very angry, for legitimate reasons.
Those who bet Mandaloun, who ran his eyeballs out to be second and tested clean, feel robbed. Those who took to social media to complain after the Derby, either because they didn’t use a 12-1 Bob Baffert trainee in a race he’d won six times before last weekend or because they genuinely felt something was afoot, have all the ammo they need to say the game is crooked (though cries of “I’M NEVER BETTING AGAIN” from those who shove the GDP of a developing nation through the windows or ADW’s will always come across as hollow and/or ego-driven).
How does any of this help racing draw the new fans it desperately needs? How has racing’s continued inability to effectively police itself in any way, shape, or form helped ensure a place for itself moving forward? And when will people who have the ability to make decisions that impact the sport moving forward realize trainers constantly complaining about being wronged are taking lessons from the Taylor Swift School of Spin, where nothing bad is ever their fault?
The answers: It doesn’t, it doesn’t, and they won’t, at least not without significant prompting to do so.
It took the FBI moving in for Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis to be run off the racetrack. In Navarro’s case, he had a rap sheet as long as Giannis Antetokounmpo’s arm but continually received mere slaps on the wrist as he took bottom-level claimers and turned them into stakes winners. All the while, bettors had an idea of what was going on, bet money accordingly, and watched as racing took no significant action despite enough smoke to indicate a giant wildfire.
At a time when perception is everything, it seems racing is deliberately choosing not to be proactive. In combating the issue of race-day medication, the sport decided to phase out Lasix, a substance designed to stop horses from bleeding. While Lasix may be A problem, the Medina Spirit situation shows it was not THE problem. Add in that horses may need Lasix to run at the sport’s highest level due to the way horses are bred in 2021, and that several of those top-tier equine athletes have bled during races, and anyone who’s watching closely knows significantly more work is needed in order to ensure any consistency and integrity moving forward.
If Medina Spirit’s split sample comes back negative, I hope it’s a stimulus for the complete and total rebuild of post-race testing from coast to coast. I don’t care what it costs, nor what the hurdles are in instituting a nationwide system where all results can be trusted. If we can’t get this right when the entire world is watching, who’s to say we’re getting this right when it isn’t?
If Medina Spirit’s split sample comes back positive, I hope it’s a stimulus for a new era of stricter sanctions for trainers who cheat. Horses run for millions of dollars, and paltry fines that amount to change “supertrainers” might find between their couch cushions means the usual punishment doesn’t come close to fitting the crime. Meaningful fines and suspensions, ones that shut the door for assistants to step in as program trainers and allow a “business as usual” mentality, are long past due.
Optics matter. And if for horse racing doesn’t apply those two words to this situation on a national level, it casts doubt on if the sport ever will in a meaningful way.