Medina Spirit Necropsy Finds No Evidence Of Illegal Drugs, Foul Play

Baffert-trained Kentucky Derby champ died in training on Dec. 6

A necropsy conducted by a diagnostic team at the University of California-Davis failed to establish a definitive cause of death for Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit, the 2021 Kentucky Derby winner who died after a morning workout at Santa Anita Park on Dec. 6.

After Medina Spirit’s death, Baffert released a statement saying that the horse died “from a heart attack,” which the necropsy (an autopsy, but for animals) findings released Friday don’t necessarily dispute. As the report, which was made public by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), noted, “Main necropsy findings were swollen and wet lungs, abundant foam in the trachea, splenomegaly, and congestion and petechiae in several locations. These findings are common in racehorses with sudden death, and are compatible with, but not specific for, cardiac failure.”

The report also made note of “congestion and small hemorrhages in multiple organs,” with no evidence that the horse had been overprescribed any form of medication — legal or otherwise.

“Cases of sudden unexpected death in racehorses are frustrating to deal with, and frequently remain unresolved, as in this case,” wrote Dr. Grant Maxie in a formally requested external review of Cal-Davis’ findings. “I agree with the final diagnosis of ‘Cause of death: undetermined; sudden cardiorespiratory arrest/cardiac failure suspected.’”

Cloud over Baffert remains

Baffert is among the most successful — and controversial — trainers in horse racing history, with a long and substantial record of horse fatalities and drug violations.

His most recent high-profile scandal took flight this past May, when Medina Spirit tested positive for illicit levels of betamethasone, a medication commonly used to treat joint inflammation. After initially blaming “cancel culture,” Baffert quickly pivoted, saying that he’d just learned that the horse was treated for dermatitis with an ointment that contained betamethasone. There’s still a distinct possibility that Medina Spirit will be posthumously stripped of his Derby crown, as Baffert and his attorneys continue to battle various state sanctioning bodies in court.

While the complexion of the CHRB has changed considerably over the past few years, the board came under fire for its handling of a case involving another Baffert horse, Justify, which went on to win the sport’s Triple Crown in 2018 after triumphing in that year’s Santa Anita Derby on April 7. As chronicled by Joe Drape in The New York Times, the board waited three weeks — until only nine days before the Kentucky Derby — to communicate to Baffert that Justify had tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing drug called scopolamine.

As was his right, Baffert asked that a sample from the test be sent to an independent lab, which confirmed the result three days after Justify won the Kentucky Derby. The CHRB never made those findings public and, after Justify went on to win both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, elected to drop its inquiry altogether.

‘Highly unlikely’ death was related to Derby drug

During a call with reporters after the necropsy was released, three members of the UC-Davis diagnostic team were asked whether Medina Spirit’s death could have had anything to do with the administration of betamethasone back in May.

In response, Dr. Ashley Hill said she considered such a scenario “very unlikely,” an opinion Dr. Benjamin Moeller agreed with.

Dr. Francisco Uzal followed up by saying it was “absolutely frustrating” that he and his peers couldn’t establish a definitive cause of death, saying that about 50% of all equine fatalities yield similarly inconclusive results. Uzal added that while Medina Spirit’s death was “suggestive of acute heart failure,” the horse could have also theoretically fallen victim to a pulmonary hemorrhage, in which blood leaks outside the vessels.

The conversation grew a bit tense when Drape asked why Medina Spirit’s hair samples weren’t tested. Hill responded that hair samples were collected and sent to a different lab for testing by the CHRB, and that the the board’s report and the necropsy are “just two different reports.”

Drape then asked if the CHRB’s follicle testing found the presence of any drugs, to which the board’s executive director, Scott Chaney, replied, “There were no positives.”

Blood-doping speculation addressed

On Thursday evening, The New York Post published a story in which a handful of medical professionals speculated that Medina Spirit may have responded negatively to a blood-doping regimen similar to that employed by disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, in which erythropoietin (EPO) is administered.

During the press call, Drape asked if an EPO test was administered and if it had been peer-reviewed. Hill responded that the UC-Davis lab “tried to find somebody to look at the drug test,” but that the university this individual was affiliated with had liability concerns.

Hill then said that while she and her colleagues will continue trying to find a third party to review the lab’s drug-testing results, they felt it was important to get their findings out as soon as possible, given the interest in the case.

Drape then asked Moeller if UC-Davis’ Maddy Lab was “even in a position to catch anybody doing anything, or are you just so far behind?”

“There are always challenges associated with drug testing, and as we continue to learn more about science and advanced technology, the playing field will continue to be leveled,” replied Moeller.

Hill then touted UC-Davis’ Maddy Lab as being the premier facility of its kind in the United States, which prompted Drape to bring up “27 people getting indicted” and say, “I think you have a little more work to do.”

CHRB investigation starts now

When it comes to the Medina Spirit case, however, the work of the UC-Davis team has formally concluded. But as for the CHRB, its work on the case has only begun.

“In practical terms, it really heats up now,” said Chaney. “We’ll have an interview with the trainer (Baffert) and veterinarian. When that review is complete, we will seek the owner’s permission to produce it unredacted, given the interest in this case.” 

If any violations come to light, he added, “CHRB regulators would file a complaint.” 

As for Baffert, it appears as though he’s ready to turn the page on Medina Spirit’s untimely demise.

“We were hopeful that the necropsy would have revealed more information about the pathophysiology that led to Medina Spirit’s sudden cardiac arrest, but it appears that his tragic death was an act of God and was not preventable,” Baffert’s attorney, Clark Brewster, said in a statement issued to US Bets. “As was expected, the necropsy results were compatible with sudden cardiac death and were consistent with reports of similar events of sudden death during workouts. Investigators determined that a possible defect in Medina Spirit’s cardiac conduction system, which regulates electrical activity in the heart, is a possible explanation. Extensive toxicological testing on multiple samples found no unexpected substances and nothing to suggest that Medina Spirit’s cardiac arrest was caused by the use of medications.”

Photo: Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY


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