First published in the Feb. 24 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
Legendary horse trainer Bob Baffert, a La Cañada Flintridge resident, was suspended and stripped of what was his seventh Kentucky Derby title by state racing stewards Monday after a monthslong investigation of Medina Spirit testing positive for a steroid following the race at Churchill Downs.
Spirit, a 3-year-old colt that died in December after training at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, failed a drug test after winning the Kentucky Derby last May and tested positive for betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory corticosteroid that is legal in the state but banned on race day.
Following a closed hearing with Baffert on Feb. 14, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission stewards — who serve as officials and ensure rules are properly followed by those who participate in the sport — suspended Baffert 90 days from March 8 through June 5, fined him $7,500 and disqualified Medina Spirit. Baffert and the owners of the colt must forfeit the $1.8 million winner’s purse.
The only time a winning horse was disqualified from the Kentucky Derby because of a prohibited substance was in 1968 when Dancer’s Image tested positive for phenylbutazone, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug.
Churchill Downs Inc. issued a statement soon after that declared Mandaloun, the horse that finished second, as the winner.
Clark Brewster, Baffert’s attorney, issued a statement after the ruling, expressing his disappointment and saying that he would go through the appeal process.
“This ruling represents an egregious departure from both facts and the law,” Brewster said, “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 before the three stewards, one of whom is directly employed by Churchill Downs as the racing director at Turfway Park.”
Brewster added that state racing rules prohibit the use of betamethasone if injection occurred within 14 days of the race and that another rule “expressly permits trainers to administer ointments containing betamethasone.” Baffert had previously acknowledged that Medina Spirit had been treated with an antifungal ointment called Otomax, which contains betamethasone, to treat the horse’s dermatitis, a skin condition that can cause itchiness, dryness or swelling.
“This is exactly what happened here,” Brewster said. “Betamethasone valerate is a permitted substance that can be administered to a horse. It was not injected. And it was administered at the direction of a veterinarian, who contemporaneously reported that treatment to a national database accessible to KHRC prior to the Kentucky Derby. There was no rule violation.”
Brewster claims that the 21 picograms of betamethasone detected in Medina Spirit’s blood sample could not have affected the horse or the outcome of the race “in any way.”
“In other words, Medina Spirit would have won with or without the ointment because it was irrelevant in every way,” he said. “The steward’s decision to rob Medina Spirit of a victory he earned was not in accordance with the law but instead represents biased, purposeful and wrongful action.”
Churchill Downs Inc. had suspended Baffert for two years, prohibiting the trainer and anyone working with him from entering horses in races owned by the company, after Spirit tested positive.