Medina Spirit, One Handicapper’s Peaks and Valleys, and Horse Racing’s Next Steps
It was 8:38 am when I got the text message.
I had just gotten out of bed and was getting ready for work. My phone vibrated with news that Medina Spirit had died following a five-furlong drill at Santa Anita.
I almost went back to bed.
I’m not a vet, I’m not an expert on the structure of the American thoroughbred, and I’m not here to bash certain people within the game just because it’s the fun, trendy thing to do. I’m a fan, handicapper, and content producer that’s had, simultaneously, the best and most chaotic year of my life betting on and talking about horses.
Medina Spirit is a big reason for that. Sent away at 13-1 in the Kentucky Derby, he was left alone on the lead when Rock Your World didn’t break. Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie, and Essential Quality came up to challenge him, but Medina Spirit refused to yield, got home, and triggered a celebration in my Northern California apartment that was probably audible up and down the West Coast.
We know the rest of the story. He tested positive for a banned substance, and a lengthy legal battle has outlived its subject. After his death, we still don’t know if we can call Medina Spirit the official Kentucky Derby winner. He won a few races, was ridden for second behind Knicks Go in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and may very well win Champion 3-Year-Old Male honors at the Eclipse Awards.
On its own, Medina Spirit’s death would be bad enough. A high-profile Bob Baffert trainee dying of an apparent heart attack after a workout, while the subject of a lengthy drug investigation, is reason enough to cringe. However, it’s the latest blow to a sport that’s been crippled lately by one public relations disaster after another over the past few years.
Santa Anita was put through the ringer in 2019, when a series of breakdowns caused an avalanche of bad press (including an astoundingly tone-deaf one-liner on the ABC show “Black-ish”) and forced significant changes to the racing product. I worked at Santa Anita for a year and a half. It’s a cathedral with fantastic people steering the ship and making the engine go. They’re back racing down the hill, and the surface is far safer than it was nearly three years ago.
Good luck, however, telling that to people whose exposure to Santa Anita comes in the form of blurbs on the ESPN “Bottom Line” talking about breakdowns and deaths rather than consuming the product on a regular basis.
Medina Spirit’s win in the Kentucky Derby triggered legal activity from all corners of the racing world. After news of the positive test made national headlines, some handicappers felt cheated enough to file a lawsuit against Churchill Downs, demanding that bettors who were beaten by a drugged horse be properly reimbursed.
Speaking of bettors, there’s no other way to explain what happened on the first day of the 2021 Breeders’ Cup than three simple words: They got hosed. Modern Games was let through a starting gate prior to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. In a sea of confusion, he was scratched, then un-scratched, then announced as running for purse money only. The talented Charles Appleby runner won as much the best, because of course he did, and the reaction from the Del Mar grandstand was a thunderous chorus of boos, one that I’ve never heard at a track before and don’t plan on ever hearing again.
As a sport, where are we on controlling the narrative that reaches novices and those who have never been to the track before? Where are we on a response that reassures the racing fanbase that the racetrack is still a fun place to go, and that one’s gambling dollar is more respected there than at a blackjack table, a slot machine, or a daily fantasy sports provider? How is it possible that a sport with many incredibly wealthy, smart people at the top level can be playing defense this much?
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I can’t address those questions without a look at where I’m at. I don’t work in horse racing full-time anymore. I’ve been out of the business for three years, ever since I was a casualty of budget cuts at The Daily Racing Form. To some, that’s a very good thing, and to others, I’m no different from other ignorant washouts who like to toot their own horn.
Those people don’t know me. By and large, they know the silly guy who posts professional wrestling memes and fires up Ric Flair’s promo from the 1992 Royal Rumble when he wins. News flash: If any of you, and I mean ANY OF YOU, take that stuff seriously and think that’s a true indication of how much I think I matter, re-evaluate your life choices and check your rear end for a stick.
What people other than my family and closest friends don’t see is the time I spend, on top of a full-time job, creating written and video content with the intensity of someone who still does it on a full-time basis. I’m probably the only guy left who attacks the Saratoga all-media handicapping race the way writers and horseplayers did 20 years ago, and I make no apologies for that. When kids my age were reading Roald Dahl, I was reading Russ Harris. Putting out a quality product matters to me, and that’s not going to change for as long as I do it.
My main rush, though, comes from helping the once-a-year track-goers cash tickets and enjoy themselves at the track. I had a friend tell me once that I cared more about people knowing I was right than actually being right. Heck yes, I do, and it’s because if people know I was right and they bet what I liked, they made money! What rush is better than that?
I said all of that, and went on what seemed like a few meandering tangents, to bring it back to one point: If racing continues to shoot itself in the foot with no plans to convince people it’s fun to come to the track, there may not be once-a-year track-goers anymore.
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I still love this game. I love writing about it, I love going on-camera to talk about it, I love reading the form to find an edge, I love betting that edge, and I love being right. I’ll answer questions from people about the sport all day long, if I can, and any sort of ambassadorship I can provide pales in comparison to what horse racing has given me.
That said, I’ve never been confrontational when I meet people who don’t like (or, in some cases, actively hate) horse racing. It’s not going to be everyone’s thing, and that’s okay. Where we find trouble is when we ask ourselves this dangerous, two-part question: How many people have been turned off by issues in racing the past few years, and what can we do to bring them back?
Remember what I said about how much I think I matter? If you think I’m an egotistical maniac, strap in for this one: For all of my flaws (and there are people who will gladly take the time to list all of them), I’m REMARKABLY self-aware. If I took my annual handle (it’s none of your business, but it’s not totally insignificant) and put that money and my content creation efforts into any other relevant field, I know I wouldn’t be missed by racing at large. That isn’t a knock on myself. It’s just a fact.
The same can be said for people I know who have bet considerably more than me and vowed that they’re done with the sport. On their own, one’s individual handle going elsewhere isn’t going to break the game or send shockwaves through the industry. However, if the whales leave, and the medium-sized fish leave, and the small fish leave without laying eggs (in this hypothetical, the eggs represent people introduced to the game and given reasons to be excited about it), what’s left? In that instance, horse racing suddenly turns into yacht racing, where rich people compete for each other’s money and nobody in any other tax bracket cares.
Any changes made are going to take time to implement. Expecting an overnight revolution when the status quo hasn’t been seriously threatened on a national level for decades is irrational, and anyone taking the opportunity to demand such a movement should know that. However, those in the game who think everything is fine and that the sport can police itself are also misguided (not to add yet another tangent, but if the sport could police itself, why did it take the FBI to run Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis out of the industry?).
There need to be constructive, inclusive conversations about how to fix the issues in our game. Women, minorities, and those that haven’t traditionally had prominent seats at that table need to be involved. Bettors and owners need to be respected in equal measure, because the sport doesn’t work without both revenue streams. The words, “but that’s the way we’ve always done it,” should be cause for a public flogging, and anyone with conflicts of interest should be required to leave the room when a close-to-home topic is being discussed.
I don’t know how we get fans back who say they’re done with the game and mean it. We don’t know the official Kentucky Derby winner. We don’t know for sure which trainers are dirty and which ones are clean. We don’t have a concrete plan in place that ensures a Modern Games fiasco doesn’t happen again. Shoot, going back to the 2019 Kentucky Derby, we still don’t have one uniform answer to the question, “what is a foul that merits disqualification?”
What I do know is that doing nothing won’t work.
I’m not asking racing to solve all of those problems instantly. However, here’s a simple prayer from someone who gives a damn about the sport surviving and thriving at all levels: Can’t we at least get the car out of “neutral?”