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After Medina Spirit’s death, the uncomfortable spotlight on racehorse fatalities returns

Medina Spirit, who finished first at the Kentucky Derby this year, died Monday. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The shocking death of Kentucky Derby first-place finisher Medina Spirit on Monday morning evoked something well beyond all the recent-years commotion around his trainer (Bob Baffert) and the site (Santa Anita racetrack). It reached way back through the decades and centuries of a sport often pegged at more than 6,000 years old.

It went back to Swale, who won the 1984 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, then finished a Sunday morning gallop at Belmont Park eight days after that latter win, “roughly the equivalent of a leisurely 10-mile jog for a world-class marathoner,” as Andrew Beyer wrote in The Washington Post. Shortly into a sponge bath from a groom, he sat back and collapsed, with possible heart failure later cited.

It went back to the 1993 Triple Crown campaign, when two horses broke down, including favorite Prairie Bayou in the Belmont Stakes, which sent trainer Thomas Bohannan on a long, lonely run across the massive Belmont Park infield toward the backstretch where his horse had faltered. “Out of nowhere,” jockey Mike Smith said that day, using the familiar term “a bad step.”

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)

Through the loud history of occasional breakdowns such as those of Barbaro (2006 Preakness) and Eight Belles (2008 Kentucky Derby), those who work with racehorses day upon day know in their bones the possibility of illness, racing injuries or sudden, inconceivable collapse.

“It’s very sad. It was very shocking,” said Gail Rice, who had bred 3-year-old Medina Spirit on her 10-acre farm in Ocala, Fla., then kissed his head in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs on May 1. Then she added, “But, you know, we’re in this business, and it happens.”

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

“My entire barn is devastated by the news,” Baffert said in a statement, a feeling that echoed back across the decades with other horsemen and horsewomen.

Medina Spirit’s apparent win in the Kentucky Derby remains under review by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission because the colt tested positive afterward for betamethasone. That drug, an anti-inflammatory, is permitted for racehorses but forbidden in prescribed windows of time leading up to races. It is not listed among performance-enhancers, but it could aid racing by lessening discomfort.

Medina Spirit’s was the 71st death in California in 2021, according to the California Horse Racing Board. Those deaths, a tiny fraction of the total entries and horses in training, happened on five tracks: 26 at Golden Gate Fields, 21 at Santa Anita, 13 at Los Alamitos, six at Del Mar and five at San Luis Rey Downs.

Fifty-four trainers lost horses — 49 men, five women. Twelve lost more than one.

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

The listed causes vary, even if most are “non-musculoskeletal sudden death” (as with Medina Spirit) or “musculoskeletal” (which describes catastrophic fractures). There can be “gastrointestinal (colic)” or “non-musculoskeletal respiratory (pleuropneumonia),” as happened in May with another Baffert horse, 2-year-old Noodles.

Thirty-seven happened in training (as with Medina Spirit), 16 in racing, and 18 were marked “other.” Five happened in 2021 with one trainer, Peter Miller, who, the Los Angeles Times reported, began a hiatus in November. Ten happened in November, the most in a month, and two have happened in December, the loudest coming Monday at Santa Anita.

“Regulatory-wise, it probably doesn’t move the ball one way or another,” said Barry Irwin, owner of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and a frequent Baffert critic. “But this whole thing was in my mind never about regulatory. It’s about what Baffert means to the game right now. He was, whether you like the guy or not, the face of the game. And because of his basic arrogance and the sloppy way he runs his barn, this is — whether he did anything wrong or not — going to be viewed as a negative thing.”

Patrick Battuello, founder of Horseracing Wrongs, which uses public records to track equine deaths in the sport, said sudden deaths among racehorses aren’t unusual, and he posted online a list of more than 50 that died this year. Battuello said his research found more than 1,000 confirmed horse racing deaths in the United States per year, and he estimated the actual number is more than twice that.

He argued: “Baffert is no better or worse than the average American racehorse trainer. ... It’s business as usual. This is horse racing every day.”

“Your heart just sinks,” said Mary Scollay, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium in Lexington, Ky. “I don’t know that I can put it into words. It was such a surprise [with Medina Spirit]. It’s inevitable; we’ve all got to go at some point, but with no warning …”

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

It can cast a picture of equine fragility that Scollay, who owns two aged horses, does not buy.

“Let’s stop right there,” she said. “The horse is exquisitely engineered to do what he does. It’s not that they have fragile legs and we’re asking them to do the unnatural. These legs had to be designed to do this [through history] when they were not domesticated, when the bobcat or wolf or predator came after them.”

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)

Asked if horses might fare similarly were they not raced at all, she said: “I’m going to say yes. Mother Nature is not a pleasant lady. Some of the injuries we deal with can be associated with repetitive high-speed exercise.” But then: “To say that horses in the wild don’t break their legs, that’s just wrong. When that happens in the wild, there’s nobody there” to tend to the injuries.

Before Medina Spirit, Baffert had six other winners of the Kentucky Derby: Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, War Emblem in 2002, American Pharoah in 2015, Justify in 2018 and Authentic in 2020. Silver Charm turned 27 in February, and he resides at Old Friends, a retirement community for horses in Georgetown, Ky. Baffert traditionally visits Silver Charm before each Kentucky Derby.

Real Quiet’s death, at 15 in 2010, happened at his home in Pennsylvania, where he died after a fall in the paddock. “It’s a pretty big blow for us,” Mike Jester of Penn Ridge Farms told reporters at the time.

Said Rice, Medina Spirit’s breeder, “I like it that people loved this horse and he’s been exposing to the people who don’t know anything about horse racing how we loved this horse and the passion that we had for this horse.” She said, “He was so well-taken-care-of,” and she wondered if he might have suffered from “so much negativity that’s been thrown at this horse.”

That sentiment, too, has rung through the years, with the people left to wonder.

Garcia-Roberts reported from Los Angeles.