Medina Spirit is no longer the winner of last year’s Kentucky Derby. At least for now.
On Monday, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, a week after it held a hearing, announced it was stripping the since-deceased colt of his victory after he tested positive for a legal drug banned for use on race day. It’s only the third time a winner has been disqualified in the 146-year history of the world’s most famous horse race.
With the disqualification, Mandaloun becomes the winner. However, there will be no refunds or payouts for anyone who bet on the horse. As for bettors, a class-action suit was filed and is working its way forward in the courts.
In addition, trainer Bob Baffert was suspended 90 days and fined $7,500. The suspension is scheduled to begin March 8 and end June 5, but that will be put on hold as Baffert’s attorneys plan to appeal the decision. If the suspension were to stand, it would be honored by all states, not just Kentucky. In addition, the winner’s purse of $1.86 million will have to be returned if the appeal fails.
“We are disappointed by the commission’s ruling, but not surprised,” said Clark Brewster, Baffert’s Tulsa, Okla.-based attorney. “This ruling represents an egregious departure from both the facts and the law, but the numerous public statements by KHRC officials over the last several months have made perfectly clear that Bob Baffert’s fate was decided before we ever sat down for a hearing. … We will appeal, and we will prevail when the facts and rules are presented to detached, neutral decisionmakers.”
Craig Robertson, Baffert’s Louisville-based attorney, expressed similar feelings.
“I am very disappointed in the ruling,” Robertson said. “It runs contrary to the scientifically proven facts in this case and the rules of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.”
Churchill Downs wasted no time in supporting the decision by the KHRC.
“Churchill Downs recognizes Mandaloun as the winner of the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby and extends our congratulations to owner/breeder Juddmonte, trainer Brad Cox and jockey Florent Geroux,” the track said in a statement.
The last time a horse was disqualified for a prohibited substance was 1968 when Dancer’s Image was removed as the winner and Forward Pass was given the victory. It took more than four years to settle the case. The only other disqualification was in 2019, when Maximum Security was disqualified because of interference.
This bizarre tale of horse racing intrigue started one week after Medina Spirit was officially declared the winner of the Derby. It has taken almost 10 months to get to the first step in clarifying this matter. Baffert held a hastily called news conference outside his barn at Churchill Downs to say he was informed that Medina Spirit had tested positive for betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory. It is not a performance-enhancing drug in the traditional sense, other than if a horse has no health problems, it might run better.
Baffert said he had no idea how the medication got into Medina Spirit and then went on a media campaign proclaiming his innocence. But two days later, he acknowledged he had learned the horse had been treated with an ointment, which contained betamethasone, for a rash on his hind quarters.
Baffert’s attorneys used the defense that the rule that was violated only covers betamethasone that is injected intra-articularly, not by ointment. Additional tests were performed by Baffert’s attorneys that showed the presence of a secondary substance that is found only in the ointment. The KHRC didn’t buy that argument.
The Hall of Fame trainer has been banned from racing at the signature Louisville track and other tracks owned by Churchill Downs Inc. for two years. Churchill Downs Inc. cited five medication positives in about a year’s time by horses trained by Baffert. Two of the positives, in Arkansas, were due to contamination that affected more than just Baffert‘s horses and were seemingly out of his control.
Baffert is not only banned from Churchill Downs, but horses trained by him are ineligible to receive Kentucky Derby qualifying points. He has built his business around being able to get horses to the Kentucky Derby, a race he has won seven times, now dropped to six.
Now, with little chance that Baffert can overturn the Churchill decision in time for the May 7 race, owners will have to choose between loyalty to him or moving their horse to another trainer. The first win-and-you-are-in race was this past weekend at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. For here on out, all major 3-year-old races will qualify horses for the Kentucky Derby.
After last year’s Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit was allowed to run in the Preakness under strict testing protocols and finished third. He was then given a break and returned to win the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar before beating older horses in the Awesome Again at Santa Anita. His last race turned out to be the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where he finished second to Knicks’ Go, who was selected horse of the year.
But on Dec. 6, after finishing a workout at Santa Anita, the horse collapsed and died on the track in what was thought to be a heart attack. A necropsy was performed and the cause of death could not be definitively determined. There were signs that it was cardiac related, but other causes could not be ruled out. There were no drugs, other than those previously reported by his veterinarian, found in his system.
It’s unclear if Medina Spirit has a chance to be returned as winner of the Kentucky Derby. Unlike racing’s goal of settling things on the track, this one will be decided by attorneys and judges, and a lot of them.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.