The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Medina Spirit, the Kentucky Derby winner, heads into the Preakness under a cloud after drug test

Medina Spirit crossed the finish line first in the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 1. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

A previous version of this story reported that Medina Spirit’s test showing 21 picograms of betamethasone exceeded a permitted limit of 10 picograms. In fact, last August the Kentucky Racing Commission altered that standard, prohibiting any presence of betamethasone during 14 days prior to a race.

Horse racing’s Triple Crown season veered into confusion Sunday upon the news that Medina Spirit, the Kentucky Derby winner, tested positive for an excessive presence of betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory drug permitted only in sanctioned amounts. His trainer, Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, said his team never treated Medina Spirit with that particular drug.

It hurled into spring 2021 the recent-years, doping-related questions swirling around Baffert, whose unexpected win with the 12-1 shot May 1 gave the 68-year-old titan a record seventh Kentucky Derby title. Churchill Downs suspended Baffert from entering any horses at the venerable Louisville track, citing “the seriousness of the alleged offense.”

“To be clear,” a Churchill Downs statement read, “if the findings are upheld [in subsequent testing], Medina Spirit’s results in the Kentucky Derby will be invalidated and [runner-up] Mandaloun will be declared the winner.”

Were that to occur, Medina Spirit would become the third horse in the 147-year history of the event to suffer disqualification after crossing the wire first — yet also the second in the past three runnings. In 1968, Dancer’s Image won the Derby but then officially gave way the following Tuesday, when the presence of phenylbutazone in a urinalysis tilted the win to runner-up Forward Pass. In 2019, Maximum Security finished first before stewards disqualified him on the basis of interference near the top of the stretch. His trainer, Jason Servis, joined those indicted 10 months later after a federal investigation into performance-enhancing drugs in the sport, at which point Maximum Security was turned over to Baffert.

Trainer Bob Baffert said May 9 that Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a dose of an anti-inflammatory drug exceeding the allowable amount. (Video: Reuters)

Marc Guilfoil, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said in a statement the test happened May 1, the day of the Derby, with these initial findings confirmed Friday. The tests draw three tubes of blood and two of urine from the horse, explained Mary Scollay, executive director at the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. The first phase, which happened this time at a laboratory in Colorado, entails an intricate, two-part process involving two vials of blood and one of urine.

The second phase, the split-sample test, comes next in this case and involves a different laboratory. It examines the two remaining samples, which will have spent recent days in a locked freezer and a locked refrigerator. For that, officials solicit the eight capable laboratories in the country, learn which can handle the testing at any given moment, then present a list of options to the trainer, who chooses one. That process, once a laboratory takes on the task, can require two weeks to a month and sometimes longer, Scollay said.

“It can depend on the substance,” she said. “It can depend on what other [testing is] ongoing at the reference laboratory. There are a lot of variables in play [including laboratory contracts with various racetracks]. If it takes more than a month, it doesn’t mean the lab had trouble with the sample. . . . The take-home message is, don’t overthink it if it takes more than two weeks.”

“During the investigation,” Guilfoil’s statement said, “both the trainer and owner of the horse will be afforded due process, and opportunity to appeal. Therefore, the KHRC will not provide further comment at this time.”

Three unusual details marked this instance.

For one, it’s rare that such news would emerge between the two sets of testing, but Baffert, the sport’s most renowned human figure, said he wanted “to get in front of the hate. This leaking now, everything leaks out. People knew about it before I did.”

For another, in speaking to reporters at midmorning Sunday by his barn at Churchill Downs, as streamed by Paulick Report, Baffert began by saying Medina Spirit and Concert Tour, another Baffert trainee, would depart Monday afternoon by van for Baltimore and the Preakness Stakes. They would figure to arrive in the wee hours of Tuesday for a race slated for Saturday. Pimlico Race Course said in a statement it was “consulting with the Maryland Racing Commission and any decision regarding the entry of Medina Spirit in the 146th Preakness Stakes will be made after a review of the facts.”

And for a third, Baffert’s contention that Medina Spirit had never received betamethasone departs from his other recent defenses against similar allegations. In the case of Gamine, Baffert wound up acknowledging that the filly had received legal drugs from veterinarians in the weeks before races in Arkansas in May 2020 and Kentucky in September 2020 but that the levels in her bloodstream had not ebbed to accepted levels by post time. In those cases, Baffert received a suspension that wound up being overturned last month in Arkansas, with a victory purse restored, and was disqualified from a third-place finish in the Kentucky Oaks.

Gamine tested positive for 27 picograms of betamethasone. Last August, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission altered its permitted threshold of 10 picograms to a prohibition of the substance in any amount in a 14-day window prior to a race. The first findings on Medina Spirit showed 21 picograms, but in this case Baffert used the word “never.”

“We did not give the horse [betamethasone],” he said Sunday. “Nobody here. He wasn’t around it. So, to me, I was just totally shocked. When I heard this news [Saturday en route to a California airport], it was just shocking, and it’s just, I still, I’m trying to absorb it right now. I still can’t believe that I’m talking about it.” He promised that he and his lawyer, W. Craig Robertson III, would conduct their own investigation involving hair and DNA.

“I’m worried about our sport,” Baffert said. “Our sport, you know, we’ve taken a lot of hits to the sport, and you know, this is pretty serious accusations here, but we’re going to get to the bottom of it, find out. We know we didn’t do it, and that’s the thing. We didn’t have anything to do with this. I don’t know how it got in his system, if it was in his system or a mistake. But we’re going to get to the bottom of it.”

The news of the positive test came at a time when allegations of doping in horse racing have galvanized a sport beset by cheating scandals, deaths and dwindling revenue. Last year, 29 trainers, veterinarians and others were federally indicted on charges involving doping race horses. Those indictments were a result of a group of wealthy horsemen — led by the Jockey Club, which regulates thoroughbred breeding — hiring a private agency to investigate suspected dopers.

The indictments were among the catalysts for then-Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sponsoring federal legislation last year that would implement anti-doping regulation of the sort the Jockey Club had been pushing for without success for several years. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was included in a massive spending bill signed into law in December. Among other provisions, the law would make the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency the enforcement body for thoroughbred racing. If it survives challenges by lawsuits from horsemen’s groups, the law will go into effect by mid-2022.

Sunday’s news brought additional calls for a nationalizing of standards, including from Marty Irby, executive director at Animal Wellness Action. “The latest doping scandal in U.S. horse racing underscores the need for swift implementation of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act that will address inconsistencies in drug testing and create a uniform national standard of rules and regulations in the sport,” Irby said.

“I would like to be optimistic about our sport but today we are an embarrassment,” Graham Motion, trainer of 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom, said on Twitter. “Perhaps we have to hit rock bottom before things get better but we only have ourselves and the leaders of our sport to blame. For anyone that loves the sport as much as I do it’s a sad day.”

Gus Garcia-Roberts contributed to this report.