correction

A previous version of this column mistakenly referred to the filly Gamine testing positive for Lidocaine at the Arkansas Derby. In fact, it was at a race on the Arkansas Derby undercard. This version has been corrected.

It’s a close call whether thoroughbred racing is an elegance or a barbarity. It’s another close call whether the game’s top horseman, Bob Baffert, has crossed over a fine line between training his charges and tricking them into running on tender legs. But here is what should not be a close call: pulling Medina Spirit from the Preakness Stakes and other races until the latter question is sorted out. That one should be plain and easy.

Baffert may have improperly administered a corticosteroid to Medina Spirit before winning his record seventh Kentucky Derby on May 1. A positive drug test showed the presence of twice the allowable limit of betamethasone, a therapeutic anti-inflammatory meant to treat swelling and joint pain in horses. While it’s not strictly banned, it’s supposed to be administered no later than 14 days before a race. If Baffert used it too close to the Derby — he denies using it at all — you can only suppose it’s because he put a creature on the track that should have been resting.

So why are Maryland officials allowing Medina Spirit to run on the Pimlico racetrack on Saturday?

The whole idea of regulating the use of these substances is that they can mask pain and jeopardize horses. Churchill Downs has suspended Baffert from entering any horses there, on the rationale that “Failure to comply with the rules and medication protocols jeopardizes the safety of the horses and jockeys. … Churchill Downs will not tolerate it.” But apparently the Maryland racing commission and Pimlico will tolerate it. And Baffert is also free to enter Medina Spirit in the June 5 Belmont Stakes, which could well be run before Baffert’s appeal is decided.

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. (Reuters)

This is the state of racing in a nutshell: Baffert can go right ahead entering Medina Spirit and his other charges in Triple Crown races because the balkanized powers of thoroughbred racing can’t muster the collective moral will to put carefulness ahead of handicapping.

The bay colt was scheduled to be loaded into a van Monday for shipment to Pimlico, where he will gallop a mile and three-sixteenths in the dirt just two weeks after the Derby, while everyone awaits the result of the “split sample,” the second test demanded by Baffert. Filling the starting gates with high-profile contenders is apparently a bigger priority than protecting the horses or the other competitors.

Baffert could well be innocent. But this is the fifth time in a year one of his horses has returned a positive test. Last year his filly Gamine wound up disqualified from her third-place finish in the Kentucky Oaks with a positive test for betamethasone, after Baffert’s lawyer fought a hairsplitting legal siege in which he argued over “thresholds” for the medication. She also tested positive for Lidocaine at a race in Arkansas, which Baffert contended made its way into her from a patch worn by his assistant trainer. All of which made his profession of utter “shock” that betamethasone was found in Medina Spirit — and his rambling conspiracy theories about “these contamination levels” — thoroughly unconvincing. As if someone is sneaking these cortisones and caines into feed buckets.

“It’s an injustice to the horse,” Baffert said of the positive test.

Now, there are a lot of potential injustices here, but Medina Spirit’s honor is not what needs protecting. It’s his legs that need the protection.

Interestingly, Baffert supported the passage of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act by Congress last year in the wake of a spate of equine deaths on the track and horse-doping-ring indictments. HISA calls for a national disciplinary body to be established by July 2022, but various factions within racing are bitterly challenging its constitutionality and authority. If Baffert truly does support a system of uniform anti-drugging protections, there is something he can do to prove his sincerity. He ought to withhold Medina Spirit from the Preakness and other races until this is settled.

“There’s problems in racing, but it’s not Bob Baffert,” he said.

Fine, then make yourself part of the solution. Set the example. Tell the horse’s Saudi owner, Amr Zedan, you won’t saddle him until you are cleared.

No one should need a federal law or a threat of suspension to do the right thing by a reliant horse. Not trainers and not owners, whose see-no-evil role isn’t talked about nearly enough.

Who does it hurt to hold the horse out of the Preakness? The owner, maybe, sort of. Gamblers. Does it hurt the horse? No. But it might hurt him to run him.

Horsemen love to wax lyrical all the time about the deep ethical component of their work and the mysterious, profound responsibility of training creatures that are silent and not autonomous. So few prove it with unilateral moral decisions. Horses will run for fun — anyone who has been to an Ocala farm has seen them do it — but compelling them to do it to the point of endangerment is altogether different. There is only one thing that makes thoroughbred racing a meaningful exercise, as opposed to a brutish amusement, and that is the right relationship between handlers and their horses. Bob Baffert and Pimlico have a chance to demonstrate that right relationship. At peril of demonstrating these races should not be run.