More than 50 years have passed since the last and only time a winner of the Kentucky Derby was disqualified for a positive drug test. The year was 1968. The horse was Dancer’s Image. The drug was phenylbutazone, better known as bute. The outcome was finally decided in the courts in 1972 when Calumet Farm’s Forward Pass was officially declared the winner.
Now here we are again. After his victory in the 2021 Kentucky Derby on May 1, Medina Spirit tested positive for betamethasone. If a split sample confirms the initial test, Medina Spirit is likely to be disqualified and runner-up Mandaloun declared the winner. If that happens, owner Amr Zedan and trainer Bob Baffert are sure to appeal. After that, it’s possible the case could go to the courts.
So how does the 2021 Kentucky Derby drug scandal compare to the 1968 Kentucky Derby drug scandal?
“The biggest difference is social media,” said Milton Toby, a Georgetown attorney who wrote the book “Dancer’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby.” “There wasn’t the 24-hour news cycle in 1968.”
Toby has written multiple books on Thoroughbred racing, most recently “Taking Shergar” about the 1983 theft of the renowned stallion in Ireland. He is currently working on a book about “a social history of performance-enhancing drugs in Thoroughbred racing.”
As a freshman at Centre College, the 1968 Kentucky Derby was the first Toby attended. Like most everyone else, he was surprised by the news a few days later of Dancer’s Image’s drug test. But then the story faded, popping up only sporadically on the sports page in the newspaper.
The media landscape has changed
Things operate differently today. Medina Spirit’s fate and Baffert’s history — five positive drug tests in a little more than a year — have dominated racing coverage through the May 15 Preakness and before Saturday’s Belmont Stakes in New York.
“You can’t get away from it,” Toby said. “I think that has created an urgency that wasn’t around in 1968.”
The Dancer’s Image positive was a matter of timing. Bute had been legal in Kentucky racing, but it was illegal during the 1968 Derby. It was made legal again in the early 1970s. Today, betamethasone is a legal medication for horses, but it cannot be administered two weeks prior to a race.
In 1968, Kenneth Smith was the chemist who found bute in Dancer’s Image’s test. Split samples didn’t exist. There was no quantitative testing to know how much bute was in the horse’s system. Today’s labs are much more sophisticated. Only 21 picograms of betamethasone were found in Medina Spirit’s sample, enough to violate Kentucky racing’s zero tolerance policy with regards to the corticosteroid.
Another difference between then and now is the reputation of the winning horse’s connections. New England car dealer Peter Fuller owned Dancer’s Image. Lou Cavalaris was the horse’s trainer. Both were considered upstanding members of the game.
“A lot of this is social media, but (Baffert’s) credibility is really coming into question now,” Toby said. “With Dancer’s Image, Peter Fuller, the owner, Cavalaris, the trainer, they were squeaky clean people. There was never a hint of scandal in either of their backgrounds.”
One other factor to consider, there were not the number of animal rights and animal welfare groups in 1968 as exist today. PETA has been particularly outspoken in its opposition to horse racing. The group regularly protests at tracks, issues public statements criticizing the sport and lobbies on behalf of shutting down the industry.
“They are really pushing the public perception of racing as inherently harmful to horses,” Toby said. “There are a lot of people who are not serious bettors, who watch maybe the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup, but what they are hearing from the animal welfare and animal rights groups is, ‘Hey, this is a bad thing.’
“They’re not hearing from racing, ‘Wait a second, there may be some bad actors, but the sport is a good thing.’ At some point, people are really going to start listening to the PETAs of the world. And when that happens, racing is going to be in serious trouble, I think.”
Will bettors continue to wager on horse racing?
Is Toby surprised there hasn’t been another Kentucky Derby winner test positive over the past 53 years?
“I can’t say I’m surprised, but I can’t say I’m not surprised,” Toby said. “The testing is becoming so sophisticated. I question whether the regulations have caught up with the sophistication.”
The 1968 scandal did little to hurt the game. Secretariat’s brilliance five years later captured national attention. There were three Triple Crown winners in the 1970s, including Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. Bettors stuck with the sport.
Will they now?
“I think it’s all going to come down to the bettors, the people who are putting the money into the game, where their credibility is in five years,” Toby said. “If this is resolved with Medina Spirit, one way or the other, and the Horse Racing Safety and Integrity Act does what people hope it will do, I think the credibility of the bettors will come back.
“If those things don’t happen, at some point, there’s going to be a tipping point where the bettors say, ‘Wait a second, I’d rather bet on the NBA or I’d rather bet on football or I’d rather legally bet on golf, because these sorts of things don’t happen there.’ So I think the jury is still out where racing is right now.”