For only the third time in the race’s 147-year history, the winner of the Kentucky Derby has been disqualified and stripped of the title.
Medina Spirit, the victor in the 2021 race, was disqualified from his win in May last year after the horse failed a drug test. However, it was not until last month that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission announced its final verdict after a months-long investigation.
Medina Spirit’s trainer, Bob Baffert, was also punished, receiving a two-year suspension from entering horses at Churchill Downs and a $7,500 fine. Baffert has since launched a lawsuit against Churchill Downs – the hosts of the Derby – urging the courts to overturn the suspension.
Baffert, one of the most illustrious trainers in horse racing history, continues to deny any wrongdoing and insists Medina Spirit had never knowingly taken the drug betamethasone – the substance found in the horse’s blood after the Derby.
What were the consequences?
Betamethasone is a commonly used drug in horse racing, used to treat pain and inflammation, although it is banned on race days as it can be used as a performance-enhancer. The commission reported in its ruling that tests carried out confirmed the drug was present in Medina Spirit’s blood on Kentucky Derby race day.
Baffert plans to appeal the decision, the trainer’s attorney Clark Brewster said in a statement: “We are disappointed by the Commission’s ruling, but not surprised. This ruling represents an egregious departure from both the facts and the law. We will appeal, and we will prevail when the facts and rules are presented to detached, neutral decisionmakers.”
As a result of the commission’s decision to strip Medina Spirit of the title, runner-up Mandaloun has been promoted to the 2021 Kentucky Derby champion.
Despite Baffert’s protestations, the case of Medina Spirit, who died in December, deepens the controversy surrounding the American trainer. There have now been five separate doping incidents over just a 12-month period involving Baffert horses.
In May 2020, Gamine and Charlatan both tested positive for the painkiller lidocaine after winning races at Oaklawn Park. Baffert was initially fined and suspended for 15 days but upon appeal, the punishment was reduced to a $5,000 fine per horse. Two months later, Merneith tested positive for the medication dextromethorphan after a race at Del Mar, and Baffert was fined $2,500. Then in October 2020, Gamine tested positive again, this time for betamethasone after racing in the Kentucky Oaks. Baffert accepted the $1,500 fine.
At the start of this year, Baffert found himself at the centre of another doping controversy when postrace samples of scopolamine were found in 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify and stablemate Hoppertunity after the Santa Anita Derby. The California Horse Racing Board ultimately allowed Justify to keep his race title despite the detection.
All these incidents apply to just a one-year span, and the New York Times reported in 2020 that there have been 29 instances of failed drug tests of Baffert horses across the course of the trainer’s four-decade career.
Bob Baffert banned (for now)
The descension into lawsuits marks a sorry turn of events for Baffert and his relationship with Churchill Downs. The 69-year-old holds the joint record for most Kentucky Derby wins for a trainer, sharing the achievement with Ben A. Jones who also had six victories.
Medina Spirit’s win last year had struck Baffert out on his own until the subsequent disqualification. He therefore should be synonymous with the rich history of the Derby, but instead, the latest scandal threatens to completely derail his legacy. If before any derby betting guide for beginners featured Baffert’s horses as ones to watch, now the scenario might have changed.
“The lawsuit filed by Bob Baffert is disappointing but certainly not surprising,” a statement from Churchill Downs read. “His claims are meritless and consistent with his pattern of failed drug tests, denials, excuses, and attempts to blame others and identify loopholes in order to avoid taking responsibility for his actions.
“These actions have harmed the reputations of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs and the entire Thoroughbred racing industry. Churchill Downs will fight this baseless lawsuit and defend our company’s rights.”
Only once before in the history of the Kentucky Derby has a horse been disqualified for doping. That came back in 1968 when Dancer’s Image was stripped of the title after the illegal drug phenylbutazone was found in his system during post-race testing.
In total, three winning horses have been disqualified from winning the Kentucky Derby. The other incident occurred in 2019 when Maximum Security was disqualified because of interference, with stewards determining the horse had interfered with other riders on turn two.
However, the latest disqualification of Medina Spirit looks set to have the biggest ramifications for the race, Baffert, and horse racing overall. As Baffert and Churchill Downs prepare to take their verbal exchanges from the media to the courtroom, there is a sense in the horse racing community that this scandal could be Baffert’s lasting legacy at the Kentucky Derby and not the six legitimate races his horses have won.