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It’s been an unusual week for Dr. Dionne Benson.
Never before has the chief veterinary officer for the Stronach Group, the company that owns the Maryland Jockey Club and Pimlico Race Course, had to pull tests on certain horses. But of course, that changed when trainer Bob Baffert announced that the Kentucky Derby victor, Medina Spirit, failed a post-race test for the Derby. The horse’s results turned up positive for 21 picograms per milliliter of blood for the steroid betamethasone, which is banned on race day in Kentucky.
Typically, all horses potentially competing in the Preakness Stakes and Black-Eyed Susan races are tested 10 to 14 days before the race day, before entries are even taken for the Preakness. Every horse entered in the races is required to be on site at least 72 hours before the race and has its samples taken then.
The moment they arrive, Pimlico security puts every horse under watchful guard. Every fluid, supplement fed to the horses or treatments and medications administered are scrutinized by investigators from the Maryland Racing Commission.
The horses trained by Baffert arrived at Pimlico on Monday and were given a second set of blood sampling then. They were then permitted to take a third sample from three of Baffert’s horses — Preakness contenders Medina Spirit and Concert Tour and Black-Eyed Susan contender Beautiful Gift — by agreement by the trainer, the horses’ owners and any connections. That sample was sent to a second laboratory to cross-reference the horse and testing to be certain all the results were consistent.
All results came back within the last couple days.
Baffert’s fourth horse, Hozier, was not subjected to a third sample.
“Testing for horses in racing is very specific. Certainly, each laboratory has to meet rigorous requirements for identifying and reporting substances,” Benson said. “In the case of betamethasone, it is certainly detectable at the concentrations that were found.”
The Maryland Horse Commission has nothing to do with the blood samples taken on Medina Spirit after the Derby. All of those are drawn by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Benson and her team’s job, however, was not to check whether Medina Spirit or any other horse had drugs in their system at the time of the Derby, but during the Preakness Stakes and surrounding races this weekend.
“Certainly, if it [the steroid betamethasone] was still there, under our agreement, the agreement was that the horse would withdraw. We tested the concentration to the limit of the laboratory’s capabilities, and they were unable to find it,” Benson said.
Benson said that, if the levels of concentration of the steroid Medina Spirit tested positive for were found, she could not say for certain what affect it would have on his ability.
“If you can measure it in the blood, it can be activating target receptors in the body, so it can have an effect on the horse,” Benson said. “It’s just impossible to quantify whether that effect changes the race’s results, so we don’t actually look at that as a general rule.”
Baffert said an ointment, Otomax, was used on Medina Spirit to treat dermatitis, and that he only learned on May 10 that the ointment contained betamethasone.
However, even the announcement of the initial positive result is unusual. Benson said there wouldn’t be a public announcement of test results in “normal situations.” Even human athletes, such as Olympians, have the ability to call for a second sample, or “split-sample,” to be taken to double-check whether the first was a false positive or not.
“The split sample, which is the due process right of the trainer, hasn’t come back yet,” Benson said. “So, there is still a potential that a second laboratory would not be able to identify [it]. The whole case would go away, for a lack of a better term.”
‘Last-second’ entry The King Cheek beats Bob Baffert-trained favorite in opening race
You might expect a horse coached by fabled trainer Bob Baffert to claim the first race of Preakness Day.
But a colt entered in the $100,000 Sir Barton Stakes at the “last second” Saturday shut up any potential naysayers as he flew across the finish line.
The King Cheek, trained by Jaime Ness, edged Baffert-trained and Grade 2-placed favorite Hozier in the first race of the day at Pimlico Race Course and claimed his first-ever stakes victory. The horse entered the race with 5-1 odds.
The 3-year-old gelding defied unfortunate circumstance — his saddle slipped backward under jockey Jaime Rodriguez around the 3/8 pole, and The King Cheek had never faced a race longer than 7 furlongs before. This one was 1 1/16 miles.
“I was reading the form and when I saw there wasn’t much speed in the race, I told the boss, ‘If he puts us in a good position, I’m just going to let him go,’” Rodriguez said. “He was so comfortable on the backside, and I feel like I had enough horse.”
But he always did know how to turn odds into oats. When Ness claimed The King Cheek for $25,000 on Sept. 30 at the Delaware Stakes, the horse ran terribly against a five-horse shake.
“And now here we are. You just never know,” Ness said.
Hozier, a 3-5 top choice and stablemate with serious Preakness contender Concert Tour, haunted The King Cheek’s heels, even temporarily surpassing the bay gelding entering the home stretch. Ness felt a flicker of worry as Hozier slipped past his horse, but then, The King Cheek “re-engaged” and battled to the front.
“I always thought he was a two-turn horse,” Ness said.
Roommates win Hall of Fame trainer first and second place in Chick Lang
Two horses very accustomed to running side-by-side surprised no one as they crossed the finish line together.
With a time of 1:09.74, Maryland-bred Mighty Mischief hauled in victory in the $200,000 Chick Lang race in his stakes debut just ahead of stablemate and even-money favorite Jaxon Traveler. Both horses were trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, who was more than happy to see his trainees finish in the top spots.
The bay colt led the pack all the way through as his buddy pushed up from fourth to second to become the clear silver, 2 and ½ lengths ahead of third-place Hemp.
“The only thing that could have been better is a dead heat,” Asmussen said. “I think they’re both very quality horses. The race might have been a little quick back for Jaxon Traveler. He didn’t have as much speed as he normally does, and the race got away from him a little bit from the half-mile to the three-eighths.”
Mighty Mischief maintained his undefeated streak through four starts and ruined that of his stablemate’s. Jaxon Traveler claimed his rookie win at Pimlico back in September and had won another two from there.
“Jaxon Traveler has been a very versatile horse. He’s traveled,” Asmussen said, likely no pun intended, “and being a Maryland-bred, [there are] Mid-Atlantic opportunities for him. Mighty Mischief, this being his first stakes try, we’ll see how he comes out of it and what we need to do with him next.”
This article will be updated.