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The announcement of an overage for the drug betamethasone was made by Baffert outside Barn 33 at Churchill Downs on Sunday morning.
Should it eventually be proven the horse did have 21 picograms of the drug in his system, he would be stripped of his Kentucky Derby win and disqualified. A picogram is one-trillionth of a gram. Betamethasone is a legal drug administered by injection and commonly used to treat joint pain. No amount of betamethasone can be in a horse's system on the day of the Derby (lowered from 10 picograms in August). It cannot be given less than 14 days in advance of a race.
Baffert called it “the biggest gut punch in racing for something I didn’t do.” He said the horse has never been treated with betamethasone and will provide veterinarian records to prove it. Medina Spirit is normally stabled at Santa Anita.
“I don’t know what’s going on in racing right now but there is something not right,” said Baffert, visibly shaken. “I don’t feel embarrassed, I feel like I was wronged. We’re going to do our own investigation. We’re going to be transparent with the racing commission like we’ve always been. We’re going to show them everything. In California everything is documented, every day. This horse was never treated with that and he’s a great horse. He doesn’t deserve this.”
Baffert learned of the positive Saturday when his chief assistant, Jimmy Barnes, was notified by the stewards. Barnes had stayed behind at Churchill Downs to oversee the training of Medina Spirit and Concert Tour. Baffert flew to Louisville on Saturday night.
The first step will be to have the split sample sent to a different lab for testing. If it comes back negative, the incident will be dismissed without a complaint ever being filed. Like in all sports that do testing, overwhelmingly the second sample comes back with the same result, but not in every case, as laboratories do make mistakes. If the result comes back positive, a hearing will be held with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which could lead to disqualification of the horse and a suspension and fine against Baffert.
Last year, Baffert had four different positives involving three horses. Charlatan and Gamine tested positive for lidocaine on Arkansas Derby day. Upon appeal, the original disqualification of the horses and suspension of Baffert were overturned by the Arkansas Racing Commission as a case was made for inadvertent and unexplained contamination. Baffert did receive a fine.
Gamine was disqualified from a third-place finish in the Kentucky Oaks after betamethasone was discovered in her system. Baffert said the filly was administered the drug, but outside of the accepted window by several days.
“Gamine, we treated her [with betamethasone], this horse was not,” Baffert said Sunday. Gamine went on later last year to win the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.
In November, Baffert was fined when Merneith tested positive for a drug commonly found in cough syrup after a test taken in July. Baffert explained that the hay in the stall was contaminated by a groom who was taking cough medicine.
“I’m not a conspiracy theorist and think everyone is out to get me,” said Baffert, who lives in La Cañada and primarily trains his horses at Santa Anita. “But there is definitely something wrong.”
The case on Medina Spirit will not stop the colt from traveling to Baltimore on Monday to run in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes. The Maryland Jockey Club said “any decision regarding the entry of Medina Spirit in the 146th Preakness Stakes will be made after a review of the facts.” It’s unlikely the horse would be barred from the race until the split sample is tested, which will take at least two weeks.
Medina Spirit also has not been disqualified from the Kentucky Derby pending an official complaint and hearing. Baffert, for now, remains the all-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer with seven wins.
However, Churchill Downs suspended Baffert from running horses at the Louisville track until the case is decided by the KHRC. Baffert was planning to run a small stable of horses at the track.
If Medina Spirit is eventually disqualified, he will be the third apparent Kentucky Derby winner to meet that fate. In 1968, Dancer’s Image was disqualified when phenylbutazone, known as bute, was found in his system. The drug is commonly used today but then was prohibited in a horse’s system on race day. It took almost five years before the case was ultimately decided.
In 2019, Maximum Security was disqualified for interference. That also went through a legal process, but owners Gary and Mary West eventually dropped the case after about four months.
On the Wednesday before the Kentucky Derby, Baffert invited two reporters into his office for a conversation about a variety of topics, including his medication positives last year.
He said that he’s become gun-shy about the unexpected.
“I’ve never had to worry about these things,” Baffert said. “It was never a factor. We weren’t doing anything wrong. I remember it was a week after the Derby [last year] and I get a call from Barbara Borden [chief steward of the KHRC]. It’s never a good thing when you get a call from the stewards a week after a big race. I say, ‘Tell me it’s not Authentic,’ she says it’s Gamine. [I said] ‘Gamine, what was it for?’”
He went on to learn it was for betamethasone administered 18 days before the race, four days beyond what is recommended by the KHRC for full withdrawal.
“So, it was after we won the Breeders’ Cup [with Authentic in the Classic and Gamine in the Filly and Mare Sprint] and I run into this Breeders’ Cup official and he says, ‘You guys must be flying high?’ I say how can I be until I know everything is clear. He says, ‘Oh, I just got word, everything is clear.’ It was then that I could really celebrate.”
Baffert reiterated the point Sunday.
“It’s getting worse,” Baffert said. “As a trainer, how do I move forward from this knowing something like this can happen? It’s a complete injustice. I’m going to fight it tooth and nail. I owe it to the horse. I owe it to the owner. I owe it to our industry.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.