Medina Spirit, embattled Kentucky Derby winner, dies during workout
By Joe Drape
Medina Spirit, the racehorse whose victory in the Kentucky Derby had been called into question by a failed post-race drug test, died Monday after a timed workout.
The colt suffered an apparent heart attack after working five furlongs at the Santa Anita Park racetrack in Southern California, said Dr. Jeff Blea, the equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board.
“Near the end of his breeze this morning, he did not feel right and his rider tried to pull him up,” Blea said. “He went down. Our vet on the scene got there immediately, and he was already expired.”
Blea said a necropsy would determine more details about the death and a final report would be made public.
The colt’s trainer, Bob Baffert, said he was devastated by the death.
“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 released by his lawyer, W. Craig Robertson III. “I will always cherish the proud and personal memories of Medina Spirit and his tremendous spirit.”
Medina Spirit’s owner, Amr Zedan of Saudi Arabia, was not immediately available for comment. Zedan’s lawyer, Clark Brewster, said he had spoken with both his client and Baffert on Monday morning. Both said Medina Spirit was training well after an impressive second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November and was preparing for another race in the coming weeks, Brewster said.
“They are wracked with grief. It’s truly tragic,” Brewster said. “He was training great and moving easily, and then Bob said when he finished up he just collapsed.”
The death of Medina Spirit does not resolve whether his Derby victory will be allowed to stand. Baffert’s lawyers have challenged the test in the federal courts, and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has yet to hold a hearing. At stake for Zedan is the Derby’s $1.8 million first-place check, which would be awarded to the owners of Mandaloun, the second place finisher, if Medina Spirit’s victory is invalidated. The victory was also a record seventh in the Derby for Baffert.
The trainer’s reputation and broader future in the sport are in the balance as Baffert has been banned for two years from Churchill Downs, the track that hosts the Derby, and the New York Racing Association has sought to do the same.
Blea said the veterinarian on the scene, Dr. Laurie Bohannon, took hair, urine and blood samples from the colt for forensic and toxicology purposes.
So far this year, 13% of the 71 racing deaths of thoroughbreds and American quarter horses in California have been sudden deaths.
“Horses’ vascular systems are complicated,” Blea said. “Sudden death necropsies are more in depth but sometimes fail to tell you what happened conclusively.”
At 12-1 odds, Medina Spirit was a surprising winner of the Derby, America’s most famous race, in May. The colt was sold as a yearling for only $1,000 and was a bargain for Zedan, who paid just $35,000 for him.
A week after winning the Derby, however, Baffert announced that a post-race test found the drug betamethasone, a corticosteroid injected into joints to reduce pain and swelling, in Medina Spirit. At the time, Baffert strongly denied that he or anyone else on his team had administered the drug to the horse.
He gave a series of TV and radio interviews in the following days offering various theories about how the colt had tested positive. He criticized Churchill Downs’ suspension of him as “harsh” and cited “cancel culture” for the controversy.
Baffert, however, soon reversed himself. He said that Medina Spirit had a rash on his hind end, and that an ointment used daily to treat the dermatitis contained the substance.
The colt’s positive test added to the questions surrounding Baffert and the perception by rivals and others in the industry of the special treatment he receives as the most successful trainer and biggest personality in horse racing. His horses have failed 30 drug tests over four decades, including five in a recent 13-month period.
Medina Spirit tested positive for the same substance found in the Baffert-trained filly Gamine after she finished third in the 2020 Kentucky Oaks, a showcase for 3-year-old fillies held at Churchill Downs.
In 2019, The New York Times reported that Justify, also trained by Baffert, had failed a drug test after winning the 2018 Santa Anita Derby in Southern California, before going on to win the Triple Crown, the most celebrated set of races in the sport.
The rules at the time dictated that Justify should have forfeited the win at Santa Anita and have been barred from racing at the Kentucky Derby a month later. Justify’s failed test was investigated for four months, allowing the horse to keep competing long enough to win not only the Derby, but also the Preakness in Baltimore and the Belmont Stakes in New York to become the 13th Triple Crown winner. His post-race tests were clean in all three.
The California Horse Racing Board’s chairman at the time, Chuck Winner, had employed Baffert to train his horses.
In August 2018, after Justify’s breeding rights had been sold for $60 million, the racing board’s medical director suggested the illegal substance scopolamine might have been present in some jimsonweed, which can contaminate hay eaten by horses. The board disposed of the inquiry altogether during a rare closed-door session.
In 2013, California regulators investigated a run of sudden deaths in its horse population, including seven horses trained by Baffert that died in a 16-month period. The deaths went unexplained and its final report found no evidence that the “rules or regulations have been violated.”
Last month, the 14-member board of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships allowed Baffert’s horses to compete after undergoing more testing and surveillance than those entered by his rivals. Baffert saddled horses for six of those board members. Six more either own horses in Baffert’s stable or stand stallions that he once trained.
Medina Spirit finished second to Knicks Go in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic in what was the final race of a career where the colt won five of his 10 starts for earnings of more than $3.5 million.