Medina Spirit’s death reignites talk about Bob Baffert, horse racing

December 10, 2021
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ARCADIA, Calif. — As the sun crept over the horizon, a man with a shock of white hair stood in the grandstand at Santa Anita Park Wednesday and watched the horses during morning workouts.

It was Bob Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer who has avoided public comment since the death of Medina Spirit, a thoroughbred who won the Kentucky Derby in May but then failed a post-race drug test.

About a month removed from a second-place finish in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, Medina Spirit completed a routine workout Monday at the racetrack before collapsing of an apparent heart attack, according to racing officials.

“Hasn’t been a good week,’’ Baffert told USA TODAY Sports. “We’re grieving.’’

At 68, Baffert is known almost as much for his gregarious nature as for his astounding success, which includes two Triple Crown winners. But on Monday, he quickly cut off an attempt to ask about Medina Spirit.

“No questions,” he said. “I just need more time, you know? I can’t deal with it right now.”

Soon after, Baffert was in a golf cart and headed back to barn No. 5, where he continues to workamid questions about his handling of horses, and the horse racing industry contends with another in a growing string of on-track tragedies.

It was just two years ago at Santa Anita where 37 horses died racing, prompting a public outcry. Another death at the famed track, coupled with it being a horse trained by Baffert and who won the Kentucky Derby this year, has put the sport on edge.

“(Baffert’s) going through a bad time right now,” said Art Sherman, who trained 2014 Kentucky Derby champion California Chrome. “But as far as Medina Spirit having a heart attack and dying, I don’t think Bob has anything to do with it.”

About 15% of racehorses actively training or racing die of sudden death, according to Clara Fenger, a California veterinarian and board member of the North American Association of Racetrack Veterinarians.

“And it happens because they’re elite athletes with large hearts,’’ Fenger said.

Fenger said she could not comment on Medina Spirit’s death because she was retained by Baffert’s attorneys after the horse’s positive drug test in Kentucky. But she did add, “Nothing could be worse for the owner, for Bob Baffert, for all of horse racing that this happens.”

Sherman, who is set to retire Friday after more than 40 years of training horses, said he thinks Baffert is overextended. Baffert has about 40 horses training at Santa Anita, according to the track, and Sherman said Baffert has about 50 horses at Los Alamitos Race Course, another track in Southern California, and estimates Baffert has 150 horses in all.

“I know when you’ve got a couple of hundred horses, you have to leave it up to a lot of different people and sometimes you’re not around to check on things,’’ Sherman said. “You’ve got to depend on your assistant trainers. And (it) can get a little loose on you.’’

But that’s not how critics of the Hall of Fame trainer see it.

“If it were up to me, I would hope Bob Baffert would never race another horse in the United States,’’ Marty Irby, executive director at Animal Wellness Action, told USA TODAY Sports. “The entire animal welfare sector and most of the people I know in the horse world actually sees him as a tremendous detriment to the industry.”

Over four decades, the horses Baffert has trained have earned more than $325 million in purse money. Over that same period, Baffert’s horses have failed 30 drug tests, according to a June 2 report by The New York Times.

When Medina Spirit tested positive at Churchill Downs after the Kentucky Derby, it marked the fourth time within a year that one of Baffert’s horses failed a drug test. Medina Spirit tested positive for the steroid betamethasone, which is a legal substance but not allowed on race day in Kentucky, Maryland and New York.

Following the failed drug test, Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, promptly suspended Baffert from the racetrack for two years. New York State racing officials later banned Baffert, preventing him and Medina Spirit from participating in the Belmont Stakes.

Last week, an attorney representing Baffert said testing of Medina Spirit’s urine collected after the Kentucky Derby indicated the positive test for betamethasone can be attributed to the treatment of a topical anti-fungal cream called Otomax.

“In other words, it has now been scientifically proven that what Bob Baffert said from the beginning was true,” Baffert’s attorney, Craig Robertson, said in a statement. “Medina Spirit was never injected with betamethasone and the findings following the Kentucky Derby were solely the result of the horse being treated for a skin condition by way of a topical ointment – all at the direction of Medina Spirit’s veterinarian.”

It remains unclear how this will impact Baffert’s suspension at Churchill Downs.

He is suing racing officials in Kentucky and New York in an attempt to regain full training privileges. But he did accept 24-hour surveillance of his barn and expanded screening for his horses during the Breeders’ Cup – conditions Breeders’ Cup officials imposed on Baffert during the prestigious two-day event last month.

In what turned out to be the horse’s last race, Medina Spirit finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 6 at Del Mar racetrack. Just over four weeks later, the 3-year-old colt was dead.

“We live in a country where you’re innocent until proven guilty, so we shouldn’t operate under the assumption that Mr. Baffert’s guilty,” said Vladimir Cerin, a longtime trainer whose horses have won multiple Graded Stakes races. “There’s no indication of any of that.

“Why don’t we just wait to see what the facts bear? From previous races in horse racing, there’s a high certainty that nothing happened that shouldn’t have.”

A necropsy, an autopsy for horses, and a toxicology report will be used to try to determine the cause of death for Medina Spirit, said Jeff Blea, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board.

Blea said the necropsy could take months to complete and results of the toxicology report likely would be available sooner. He also said he does not expect legal or banned drugs to have contributed to the horse’s death, but added, “those questions will be answered when the laboratory has done its analysis.”

With samples of the horse’s blood, urine and hair having been submitted to the toxicology lab, more than Baffert’s reputation could be at stake.

Patrick Battuello is the founder of Horseracing Wrongs, a non-profit dedicated to the ban of horse racing, and he said the death of Medina Spirit could help the cause.

On the day Medina Spirit died, Battuello posted the names of 50 other thoroughbreds who have died at racetracks this year.

Citing information on his website, horseracingwrongs.org, gathered from public records, Battuello said each year about 2,000 racehorses die at a track, whether it be while racing, training or elsewhere on the grounds. Battuello said he expects approximately the same number of deaths for 2021, only this year the total will include the reigning Kentucky Derby winner.

“So it’s a good opportunity to educate the public even further that this is what horse racing is,” he told USA TODAY Sports, “and that no matter what they try to put out there about reforms and welfare improvements, the killing continues and it’s unfailingly constant.’’

The Jockey Club, the breed registry for thoroughbreds in the United States and Canada, reported 322 American racehorse fatalities in 2020, but its figures include only race-related deaths. 

The Jockey Club also reported the risk of fatal injury to a horse in 2020 declined 29.5% since 2009, when the organization began collecting the data.

Horse racing, struggling to attract new fans, faces clear economic challenges too.

In September, Arlington International Racecourse in Illinois became the 40th track to shut down since 2000, according to a list of track closures on horseracingwrongs.org. During that same period, only one track, Presque Isle in Erie, Pennsylvania, has opened, according to Battuello.

“Things are progressing, it’s just not coming fast enough for these horses,’’ he said. “I’m not out to villainize individuals, and that’s why I don’t give too much attention to Bob Baffert. Because it sends the wrong message, but for a few bad apples racing can be made acceptable.’’

By contrast, Irby, executive director at Animal Wellness Action, said, “The public’s view of American horse racing has been on a steady decline for many years and the more incidents with Baffert that pop up, the more the public sentiment regarding the industry declines.”

But Irby said he thinks change is coming when the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) he helped craft takes effect next year.

The act bans all race-day medication at every track in the United States, creating uniform national standard for regulation under United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). For now, the steroid that led to Medina Spirit’s positive drug test is banned on race-day in Kentucky, Maryland and New York but legal everywhere else.

“Medina Spirit’s death is a tragedy for our community and for the sport,’’ the Horse Racing Integrity Act Authority said in a statement provided to USA TODAY Sports. “We don’t yet know the circumstances surrounding his passing, but the ongoing litigation related to the Kentucky Derby has been an important example of why horse racing needs national, uniform rules and regulations to provide clarity and confidence among participants and fans.”

On Wednesday morning, Kim Gravensland of Washington stood on the other end of the track as Baffert did. With the next racing meet at Santa Anita set to begin Dec. 26, Gravensland, looked giddy to see one of two fillies she and her husband recently bought gallop at the morning workouts.

But she arched her eyebrows when asked about Medina Spirit.

“It’s tragic, and it makes you all go, ‘Oooh,’ ” she said. “I’m just going to wait to see what’s discovered and hope for the best.’’

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