The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Medina Spirit, disputed Derby winner dragged down by positive drug test, dies after workout

Medina Spirit, the horse that finished first in the 2021 Derby but failed a drug test after the race, died after suffering a heart attack. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

A previous version of this article incorrectly said Medina Spirit was the 72nd equine fatality at five California tracks this year. He was the 71st. This article has been corrected.

Medina Spirit, the plucky colt with modest roots who went from afterthought to first-place finisher in the controversial 2021 Kentucky Derby, died suddenly Monday after a workout at California’s Santa Anita racetrack. The smallish Florida-bred 3-year-old had won at Churchill Downs on May 1 before failing a drug test that led to a suspension of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.

“Medina Spirit was a great champion, a member of our family who was loved by all, and we are deeply mourning his loss,” Baffert said in a statement. “I will always cherish the proud and personal memories of Medina Spirit and his tremendous spirit.”

Santa Anita Park said in a statement that Medina Spirit, owned by Saudi Arabian businessman Amr Zedan, “died suddenly of a probable cardiac event according to the on site veterinary team who attended to him.” Samples of the horse’s blood, hair and urine were sent to the California Horse Racing Board, according to the statement, and a full necropsy is expected.

The breeder in Medina Spirit’s implausible story, Gail Rice of the horse country of Ocala, Fla., had just turned around from giving a tour of her family’s 10-acre farm to a horse owner from Switzerland seeking advice — the very kind of aspect Medina Spirit had added to her life — when her daughter called with the news.

“I said, ‘No way,’ ” Rice said. “I said, ‘I can’t believe it.’ I said, ‘This horse was at the top of his game.’ ” She said Monday afternoon: “Mr. Zedan called me, and we were talking. And you just want to cry together. It’s just like with a family member.” She spoke of knowing Medina Spirit since “before he could breathe. That’s how it is. Their tongue’s hanging out, and they’re limp, and you’re just like, ‘Come on, breathe!’ ”

Medina Spirit has died. Here’s what to know.

A trainer who was present at Santa Anita Park, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said Medina Spirit appeared to slow near the wire, looking “a little wobbly” until his rider guided him to the outside fence, where he collapsed. He had raced four times since his wire-to-wire win by half a length at the 147th Kentucky Derby, running third in the Preakness as Baffert stayed home in California, winning Aug. 29 at Del Mar and Oct. 2 at Santa Anita, then beating the other 3-year-olds in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 6 at Del Mar, finishing a non-menacing second by 2¾ lengths to 5-year-old sensation Knicks Go.

“I’m very proud of him,” Baffert said that day, and he went forward with the Middle East a possibility: the Saudi Cup in February and the Dubai World Cup in March.

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)

On Monday afternoon, outside the racetrack beneath the San Gabriel Mountains and about 20 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, there was no sign that anything out of the ordinary had occurred that morning. Trucks carrying bales of hay and other horse-business vehicles drove past a security checkpoint. The track won’t conduct its next live racing until Dec. 26, and a security guard refused to allow a reporter into the park, saying only, “No press.”

By then, the California Horse Racing Board had listed the disputed winner of the still-undecided Kentucky Derby as the 71st equine fatality of 2021 at five California tracks, after a “non-musculoskeletal sudden death.”

Bob Baffert, long horse racing’s irreverent king, sits on a precarious throne

The death of the Kentucky Derby star, under the care of the embattled horseman who is the most famous person in racing, is yet another unwelcome development in a sport staring down existential threats stemming from dwindling revenue, spates of dead horses and indictments of top trainers on doping charges. Santa Anita Park was central to one of those scandals after 37 horses died there during the 2019 racing season. The deaths sparked multiple investigations, which found no criminal wrongdoing by trainers or track operators.

Medina Spirit is the youngest first-place Derby finisher to die since 1984, when Swale died suddenly after a workout that June 17, eight days after winning the Belmont Stakes. Barbaro, the 2006 Derby winner, died in January 2007, eight months after suffering a catastrophic injury near the outset of the 2006 Preakness. Twenty-one winners of the Derby survive, the oldest being 1994 winner Go for Gin, who turned 30 this year and stands at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

The origin story of Medina Spirit, a Derby winner born on a patch of Florida dirt and sold for $1,000

Foaled April 5, 2018, Medina Spirit had the kind of reticent roots that make for lavish lore, especially in the Derby. He arrived while guided to life by two women — Rice and her daughter-in-law, Emily — on a nondescript patch of dirt beside a gate. His mare, Mongolian Changa, could not produce milk, but Rice knew well enough to have kept some frozen. As a yearling, Medina Spirit sold for a sum that later became famous — $1,000 — to a keen local consignor, Christy Whitman. As a 2-year-old, he sold for a still-humble $35,000 to Zedan, who wound up wide-eyed with wonder on Derby day.

By the time he reached Churchill Downs on May 1, with his two wins, his three second-place finishes and his honest effort, Medina Spirit entered the 19-horse field as a co-sixth betting choice, then got the lead and kept it doggedly through a competitive stretch. It breathed as an underdog’s tale among non-underdogs — Baffert’s seventh Derby win, the fourth for jockey John Velazquez — until eight days later, when Baffert revealed Medina Spirit had tested positive for an anti-inflammatory drug, betamethasone.

Seven months of uncertainty have followed. Churchill Downs suspended Baffert and prohibited him from entering the Kentucky Derby in 2022 and 2023. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has not ruled definitively on whether Medina Spirit would become the third disqualified winner in the 147 years of the country’s foremost race.

Betamethasone, among more than 850 drugs categorized in Kentucky statues last May, was among the 97 in Class C, indicating a low degree of influence upon performance. It is permitted as a treatment for racehorses but must clear the system by a specified window before a race. In a statement Dec. 3, Baffert’s attorney, W. Craig Robertson III of Lexington, Ky., maintained that the results from a New York laboratory upheld Baffert’s contention that Medina Spirit received the drug through ointment, not injection. It remains unclear whether that distinction will matter.

Garcia-Roberts reported from Los Angeles.

This story has been updated.

Read more on horse racing:

Rombauer storms to a Preakness victory, ending Medina Spirit’s Triple Crown bid

The dark side of Bob Baffert’s reign

Officials worked secretly to clear Bob Baffert’s Justify amid 2018 Triple Crown run, records show