Medina Spirit’s Death Prompts Soul Searching, More Questions About Baffert

The Derby winner's death is among a long list of issues for horse racing to wrestle with
Bob Baffert Medina Spirit

Shortly after Medina Spirit crossed the wire first in the Kentucky Derby, his story became mired in controversy. And on Monday, it took its most tragic turn.

The dark bay colt trained by Bob Baffert died during morning training at Santa Anita, according to the California Horse Racing Board’s account of events, in what is classified as a “sudden death.” It is presumed to be a cardiac event, not the result of a musculoskeletal injury commonly referred to as a “breakdown,” according to CHRB Equine Medical Director Jeff Blea, although an official cause of death will not be determined until the CHRB conducts a necropsy at the University of California-Davis.

“A sudden death is just that,” Blea told US Bets. “He had just finished his work. It looked like his legs got weak and wobbly, the rider pulled him up, he slowed to a walk, and then went down quietly. It’s almost like seeing a person having a heart attack. … When the track vet got there, he had already expired.

“I spoke to the rider and saw [the] video. He said the horse was doing great and feeling great during the work, then something was different.”

Baffert did not respond to a request for comment by US Bets, but issued a statement.

“My entire barn is devastated by this news,” the statement read. “Medina Spirit was a great champion, a member of our family who was loved by all, and we are deeply mourning his loss.”

The Baffert statement specified that Medina Spirit died “from a heart attack,” although that definitive label is not the terminology used by the CHRB or Santa Anita, which also issued a statement on Medina Spirit’s death. The statement from the Southern California racetrack described Medina Spirit’s death as a “probable cardiac event” and pointed to the necropsy and “toxicology studies” to be conducted by the CHRB.

Positive Derby drug test and months of waiting

Eight days after Medina Spirit’s triumph at Churchill Downs, it was announced by the Baffert camp that the colt had tested positive for a corticosteroid called betamethasone. Kentucky rules do not allow for any of the medication to be detected in a participating horse’s system on race day, and the test showed 21 picograms per milliliter of blood plasma.

After a media tour where he blamed, among other things, “cancel culture,” Baffert said a couple days later that an ointment applied to Medina Spirit, called Otomax, contained betamethasone.

Even in the context of horse racing’s normally snail-like pace to settle drug issues with trainers, the Medina Spirit case has felt protracted. The positive test triggered a regulatory process overseen by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which has yet to make a ruling on the case. But Churchill Downs Inc. suspended Baffert from racing at its properties, as did the New York Racing Association. However, the move in New York was reversed, for now, in court.

There have been claims of damaged samples, and on Friday, Baffert’s lawyer, Craig Robertson, announced a split urine sample had been analyzed in a New York lab, and that those results fit Baffert’s contention that the betamethasone was administered to Medina Spirit through an ointment and not from an injection. Robertson claims the way betamethasone got into Medina Spirit’s system matters in the context of Kentucky’s rules, but that is also in dispute.

Another Baffert trainee, a filly named Gamine, tested positive for betamethasone and was disqualified from the 2020 Kentucky Oaks. Tests also found an overage for lidocaine in Gamine, along with Arkansas Derby winner Charlatan, at Oaklawn Park in 2020. But although those initially led to a disqualification for both horses, that ruling was overturned by the Arkansas Racing Commission in April of 2021. Although Baffert was still fined for the overage, a 15-day suspension for the trainer was also lifted.

Baffert’s history with ‘sudden deaths’

Over a 17-month period from November 2011 through March 2013, seven horses from Baffert’s barn at Hollywood Park died suddenly while either racing or training.

Prior to the death of a 2-year-old colt in August 2012, doctors discovered a “systolic heart murmur” as part of an exam to renew insurance coverage, according to a report by the CHRB. But the colt did not show any signs of “exercise intolerance or cardiac insufficiency,” an equine veterinarian wrote in an email to the insurance underwriter two days before the horse’s death. The necropsy determined that the colt died of cardiac failure.

The investigation into the fatalities of the horses from Barn 61 at Hollywood Park failed to identify a “definitive explanation” for the sudden deaths of the horses in Baffert’s barn. When the CHRB released its findings in November 2013, it found no evidence of wrongdoing in the care of the seven horses, according to Rick Arthur, then the CHRB’s equine medical director.

Over that period, however, Baffert’s horses accounted for approximately 2.5% of the starts in California, but about 19.4% of the total deaths tracked by the board’s necropsy program.

There was also a section of the report that focused on Baffert’s use of a medication called “Thyro-L (levothyroxine).” The report said Baffert had used the drug to “build up” his horses and stated that the usage was “surprising, since the drug is most commonly used to assist weight loss and has been shown to cause weight loss in horses.”

The CHRB determined, as detailed in the report, that “even though the use of thyroxine is concerning in horses with suspected cardiac failure, the medication was used in all of Baffert’s horses at all tracks. … Since thyroxine was used regularly on all of Baffert’s horses at all tracks, Thyro-L does not explain why all the fatalities occurred at Hollywood Park.” The report’s section on Thyro-L ended with the fact that Baffert had “discontinued the use of Thyro-L … after an internal review of his supplement program.”

Fast forward to April of 2021, when the Washington Post published an article that analyzed the Baffert’s horse fatality count since 2000. The Post found that Baffert’s fatality rate for horses under his care, up to that time, was 8.3 per 1,000 starts.

“At least 74 horses have died in Baffert’s care in his home state of California since 2000, more than all but two of hundreds of trainers in the state, according to a Post analysis of data and public records,” Gus Garcia-Roberts and Steven Rich reported. “But when factoring in the number of races run, Baffert’s horses have died at the highest rate of the 10 trainers who have had the most horse deaths.”

Horse racing ‘in crisis’

So what does all this mean for the horse racing industry?

Since the death of Medina Spirit was reported Monday morning, the response from fans, gamblers, and prominent figures in the racing world has ranged from sadness to rage and disgust.

With the controversy of the Breeders’ Cup barely in the rearview mirror, the tragedy of Medina Spirit’s death and the implications of his racing career add to a long list of issues for the sport to wrestle with, including the unresolved Kentucky Derby case.

News of Medina Spirit’s positive test after the Derby triggered an uproar on social media from bettors who held win tickets and exotics featuring Mandaloun, a 26/1 longshot, among the $155.4 million all-source wagers on the first leg of Triple Crown. But it appears those bettors have little recourse based on language in the KHRC regulations on retroactive payouts.

The regulations are found in Title 810, Chapter 6 of the commission’s administrative regulations on parimutuel wagering:

“Payment of valid parimutuel tickets shall be made on the basis of the order of finish as declared ‘official’ by the stewards or judges. A subsequent change in the order of finish or award of purse money that may result from a subsequent ruling by the stewards, judges, or commission shall not affect the parimutuel payout,” the regulation states.

Michael Beychok, the 2012 winner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s National Handicapping Contest, and a group of other horseplayers filed a lawsuit alleging that Baffert and Medina Spirit’s owner, Amr Zedan, committed fraud. Beychok stood to collect as much as $100,000 if Mandaloun was declared the winner, and three other horseplayers claimed they would have brought home approximately $40,000 in winnings under that scenario.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, is still pending.

“Horse racing is in a state of crisis with its gambling customers, and I suspect this will be a ‘final straw’ for some,” Ed DeRosa, vice president of content and product development at Horse Racing Nation, told US Bets after Medina Spirit’s death. “Between what happened at Breeders’ Cup, questions surrounding Baffert’s drug positives, and added competition from sports betting at a lower price point, racing is running out of marketable qualities.

“We’re well past the point of needing a fix. Racing needs wholesale changes to how it conducts its business.”

Animal rights groups have also had horse racing in their sights for some time, and the sport is frequently criticized by organizations like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Some of those concerns will be targets of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which was signed into law in 2020. But exactly what those HISA measures will look like and how they will be implemented is still unclear. How the federal government has proceeded with setting up HISA infrastructure has also received criticism, considering a federal organization tasked with enforcing the law has to be up and running by the summer of 2022.

“This high-performing thoroughbred will always have an asterisk by his name because of medication abuses that caused extreme controversy following the horse’s Derby win and connection to Bob Baffert,” Marty Irby, a Capitol Hill lobbyist and executive director of Animal Wellness Action, told US Bets after Medina Spirit’s death. “Race-day doping has no place in American horse racing, and we have to wonder if doping contributes not only to on-track injuries and death, but also to post-track health risks.

“American horse racing continues to be ridden with scandal after scandal, but we believe the implementation of [HISA] will soon bring legitimacy back to the sport.”

So, what will happen to Baffert, an embattled trainer but still a member of the sport’s Hall of Fame, after the dust settles? For the last few months, it seemed as if he would get past the Medina Spirit drug case, as he raced at Del Mar’s summer meet, participated in the Breeders’ Cup, and remains based at Santa Anita. But does Medina Spirit’s death change the calculus?

Baffert acknowledged the fickle, unpredictable nature of the sport back in 1999, days after the death of legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham.

”I still have humbling times,” he said at the time. ”Nobody is bigger than this game. It can kill you at any time. Charlie’s best quote of all time was, ‘Horses are like strawberries: They can go bad on you at any time.”’

Photo: Pat McDonogh/Courier Journal


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