2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit dies after workout at Santa Anita

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  • Bob Baffert
    Bob Baffert
    American horse owner and trainer
John Velazquez riding Medina Spirit crosses the finish line to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs
John Velazquez rides Medina Spirit across the finish line to win the Kentucky Derby on May 1 at Churchill Downs. Medina Spirit died while breezing Monday morning at Santa Anita. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

The specter surrounding Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit took the most horrible of turns Monday morning when the 3-year-old colt collapsed and died on the track after a workout at Santa Anita.

A necropsy will be performed, although early indications point to a heart attack.

Medina Spirit and his trainer, Bob Baffert, have been at the center of a nationwide controversy after the horse tested positive for a legal medication, but not legal on race day, after winning the Derby. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has not charged Baffert with anything or stripped Medina Spirit of the win, pending a hearing and enhanced testing results. Churchill Downs has banned the Hall of Fame trainer from its track for two years.

Medina Spirit had just finished a five-furlong workout around 7:45 a.m. when he collapsed.

“At the end of the breeze, he was slowing down at the wire,” said Jeff Blea, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board. “Right after the wire, he looked odd, and you could see the horse stagger and then he just laid down past the wire. Track vets got to him right away, but he was already gone. These types of things are presumed to be cardiovascular events, but the necropsy will tell us more.”

Laurie Bohannon, senior veterinarian at Santa Anita, took blood, hair and urine samples from the colt to start the standard necropsy process. The samples were sent to the state testing laboratory at UC Davis, as will the body.

This type of incident is called “sudden death” and the necropsy is more thorough as opposed to that after a muscular-skeletal incident, more commonly known as a breakdown.

“There is more toxicology and forensics,” Blea said. “But given the high-profile nature of this, it will be a priority.”

Baffert was on-site when the incident happened.

Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit is bathed after a workout ahead of the Preakness Stakes in May.
Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit is bathed after a workout ahead of the Preakness Stakes in May. (Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

“My entire barn is devastated by this news,” Baffert said in a statement. “Medina Spirit was a great champion, a member of our family who was loved by all, and we are deeply mourning his loss. I will always cherish the proud and personal memories of Medina Spirit and his tremendous spirit.

“Our most sincere condolences go out to Mr. Amr Zedan and the entire Zedan Racing Stables family. They are in our thoughts and prayers as we go through this difficult time.”

Medina Spirit’s rise to the top of the horse racing world was a bit of a surprise for a $35,000 Florida-bred purchase. There always seemed to be a horse that was just a little bit better than him, as he finished behind stablemate Life Is Good in the Sham Stakes and San Felipe Stakes. He was second to Rock Your World in the Santa Anita Derby.

Going into the Kentucky Derby, Baffert even confided to reporters that he “wasn’t the best horse in the race.” But the best horse doesn’t always win, as Medina Spirit showed strength in the stretch of the 1¼-mile race and refused to give up the lead and won by half a length.

It was a week later that Baffert held an impromptu news conference outside his barn at Churchill Downs, where he said he was informed that Medina Spirit had tested positive for betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory. Baffert said that he did not know how the substance got into the horse but that a full investigation would commence. Two days later, he said the source was an ointment that was being used to treat a rash on the horse’s hind end.

Betamethasone is not considered a performance-enhancing drug in the traditional sense, other than if it makes horses feel better, they may perform better.

Medina Spirit came back and finished third in the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown. He was then sent off for some rest and won the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar and the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita. His last race was a second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, running against older horses. He was scheduled to return as a 4-year-old.

Monday’s death will no doubt turn the heat up on horse racing in Southern California, which was making significant progress in lessening deaths at the track after 2019 when 37 horses died at Santa Anita. The CHRB is expected to make this a front-burner issue and make sure everything is beyond reproach.

It is only the second racing or training death in Baffert’s barn in the last three years. The first was in 2019 when a runaway horse collided into a Baffert horse during workouts at Del Mar. Medina Spirit was the second fatality.

The saga of Medina Spirit still has to play out in Kentucky both with the KHRC and Churchill Downs.

On Friday, Baffert’s attorney released the results of additional testing that showed the urine of the horse had betamethasone valerate, which appears only in ointments, instead of betamethasone acetate, which shows up in injections. It is their contention that the rule applies only to injections.

The KHRC will now decide if that is the case or if it wants to take away a Kentucky Derby win from a dead horse.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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