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The 2021 Preakness Stakes transformed the moment Bob Baffert stepped in front of his barn Sunday and announced that Medina Spirit had tested positive for an anti-inflammatory drug after his victory in the Kentucky Derby.
Baffert had seemed destined for another week of coronation as he aimed for an eighth Preakness victory to go with his seven Derby wins. His quest would blend with a relative return to normalcy after COVID-19 scrambled the Triple Crown schedule in 2020.
As soon as Baffert delivered his news, however, the run-up to Saturday’s race became a referendum on the Hall of Fame trainer’s legacy and a waiting game to see if Medina Spirit would even be allowed to run at Pimlico Race Course.
The answer to the second question is yes. The Maryland Jockey Club announced Friday that Medina Spirit had passed two additional rounds of drug testing, mandated as a condition for him to enter the Preakness. He will continue his Triple Crown push, even as Baffert and the colt’s owners wait for a split-sample test from Kentucky that could wipe out their Derby victory.
The question of how to regard Baffert, who has fought a string of medication violations for his champions over the past three years, led to cloudier debates. The white-haired face of modern thoroughbred racing did not travel to Baltimore to work with Medina Spirit and his other Preakness entry, Concert Tour. He said he did not want to be a distraction.
So others were left to discuss Baffert in his absence.
Trainers who will oppose him Saturday have largely avoided digging into the controversy.
“There’s 10 horses in the race, and all 10 guys have put in a lot of sweat equity to get here,” said Michael McCarthy, who will saddle Rombauer for the Preakness. “Unfortunately, with what’s going on in the bigger picture of things, that’s what people will gravitate toward. But it doesn’t affect me on a day-to-day basis.”
Steve Asmussen, who’s won the Preakness twice and will saddle Midnight Bourbon for Saturday’s race, said the Derby controversy has not swallowed his week or his love for “a very special place.”
“That’s an individual’s perception,” he said. “It isn’t mine.”
Baffert’s friend and old rival, D. Wayne Lukas, has been his most outspoken advocate.
Lukas, who will saddle long shot Ram for the Preakness, urged Baffert to attend Saturday’s race. “I said, ‘Bob, come on, you didn’t do anything, you’re perfectly innocent,’” the six-time Preakness winner said. “He’s just so disgusted with the whole thing.”
He echoed Baffert’s view that trainers are in a “bad position” because modern drug tests are sensitive to a trillionth of a gram of medication in a horse’s system.
“I can sit here and look at my horse — he’s got absolutely nothing, no salves, nothing — and yet I know I’m subject to wake up tomorrow and hear he tested for something we never heard of,” Lukas said.
He added that the amount of betamethasone in Medina Spirit’s system “had no effect on the race or his performance, none.” Lukas said that if he still held a spot on the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, he would advocate throwing the test out.
“The whole atmosphere here has changed,” he said from his familiar corner perch at the Preakness barn. “The excitement is not here. That’s what’s bad for the industry right there.”
Anti-doping activists, meanwhile, pointed to the test failure and Medina Spirit’s presence in the Preakness as signs that the industry has not cleaned up its act.
“Now racing fans and people concerned with the health of the horses must ask what, exactly, the Preakness and Pimlico are ever going to do to prevent a cheating fiasco like at the Derby,” wrote Marty Irby, executive director for the nonprofit Animal Wellness Action, in an editorial for NBC News.
Baffert’s top assistant, Jimmy Barnes, conducted business as usual after Medina Spirit and Concert Tour arrived by van Monday afternoon. Though he replied with quick no-comments when asked about Baffert’s state of mind or Medina Spirit’s drug tests, Barnes said the horses could not be working better as the storm swirled around them.
Of the six previous Derby winners Baffert brought to the Preakness, only one — Authentic last year — failed to win. Barnes said Medina Spirit, a 9-5 favorite in the morning line, recovered from his run at Churchill Downs as well as any of them.
He’ll face challenges having nothing to do with a doping scandal. As rival trainers handicapped the race, many predicted Medina Spirit’s stablemate, Concert Tour, would seize the early lead. If that happens, Medina Spirit and jockey John Velazquez will not control the race from the front as they did in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
As for Barnes, he’s used to keeping the operation running while Baffert is in some other locale.
“I’m always on the road,” he said. “Bob’s there sometimes, great. If Bob can’t make it, I just have to pick up the slack and march on.”
Despite the relative calm around the Preakness barn Friday morning, an uneasy anticipation for Saturday loomed. No matter the result of the race, Medina Spirit’s failed test in Kentucky will affect the way it’s interpreted.
“There’s no good scenario,” NBC analyst Randy Moss said. “If he runs and he loses, people are going to say, ‘Oh, he didn’t have the drugs.’”
To the casual fan, it might not matter that Baffert has successfully appealed penalties related to several recent medication violations or that many trainers share his concerns about testing thresholds. It might not matter that Moss, Lukas and others see no connection between Medina Spirit’s performance in the Derby and the 21 picograms of betamethasone in his system.
“There is an increasing belief [in the general public], as these Baffert transgressions begin to pile on each other, that he’s a cheater,” Moss said. “That’s he’s giving his horses illegal medications to win big races and make them run faster.”
The story will become messier still if Medina Spirit wins the Preakness and goes to Belmont Park with a Triple Crown theoretically on the line as the racing world awaits a possible Derby disqualification.
146TH PREAKNESS STAKES
Saturday, 6:47 p.m. post time
TV: Chs. 11, 4 (5 p.m.)
Triple Crown series: Belmont, June 5