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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Medina Spirit stripped of 2021 Kentucky Derby win

Medina Spirit, with John Velazquez riding, finishing first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

By Joe Drape

Medina Spirit is no longer the winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby. The colt, who died unexpectedly in December, was officially disqualified by Kentucky racing officials Monday for failing a drug test after winning the race.

Medina Spirit is only the third horse in the race’s 147-year history to receive such a penalty after finishing first. The decision means the colt’s owner, Amr Zedan, will not collect the $1.8 million first-place check, which was never paid out and will now go to Mandaloun’s owner, Juddmonte, the racing and breeding enterprise founded by Prince Khalid bin Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who died last year.

Churchill Downs, the track in Louisville, Kentucky, that hosts the Derby, said in a statement that it now recognizes Mandaloun as the winner of the 2021 race, adding, “We look forward to celebrating Mandaloun on a future date in a way that is fitting of this rare distinction.”

The ruling also erased Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s seventh Kentucky Derby victory, which had been a record.

In addition, Baffert was suspended for 90 days beginning March 8 and fined $7,500. The ruling followed a hearing via videoconference on Feb. 14 before a three-member panel of stewards for the Kentucky Horse Racing Association.

The drug found in Medina Spirit’s system was betamethasone, a corticosteroid injected into joints to reduce pain and swelling. Baffert and his lawyers denied injecting the colt and said the drug was applied topically to treat a skin rash on Medina Spirit’s hind end.

Clark Brewster, a lawyer for Baffert, said that he was disappointed but not surprised by the panel’s decision and that the trainer would appeal it immediately before the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. He also said they would pursue all remedies in the court system.

“We will appeal, and we will prevail when the facts and rules are presented to detached, neutral decision makers,” Brewster said in a statement.

The disqualification puts a new stain on a sport that has been troubled by doping problems and places Baffert’s reputation and future in the sport in jeopardy. Baffert, whose horses won the Triple Crown in 2015 and 2018, is thoroughbred horse racing’s most recognizable personality.

The decision by Kentucky racing officials comes at a time when the Triple Crown season is heating up and the quest for qualifying points to earn a spot in the Derby’s starting gate is getting urgent. Churchill Downs had already suspended Baffert from the race for two years and refused to award qualifying points to horses he would train for the 2022 Derby.

Baffert has three accomplished 3-year-old colts in his barn — two of them, Corniche and Newgrange, are undefeated. If their owners want to participate in the Derby, they must transfer their horses to another trainer and hope to earn qualifying points in future prep races.

Last month, Baffert threatened to sue Churchill Downs if the track did not lift the two-year ban, saying that his right to due process was violated and that he had been unlawfully excluded from Churchill Downs and the Derby, according to a wide-ranging draft legal complaint obtained by The New York Times. The complaint has not been filed.

Bill Carstanjen, CEO of Churchill Downs, said the complaint was “meritless.” He threatened to countersue if it was filed and emphasized that Baffert was a repeat offender. In 2020, in the Kentucky Oaks, the nation’s premier race for 3-year-old fillies, Gamine, whom Baffert had trained, tested positive for the same substance as Medina Spirit after finishing third. In all, Baffert’s horses have failed 30 drug tests over four decades, including five in a recent 13-month period.

“This threatened lawsuit is yet another tactic from Mr. Baffert’s well-worn playbook of obfuscating the facts, inventing excuses to explain positive drug tests and attempting to blame others to avoid responsibility for his own actions,” Carstanjen told the Times.

New York racing officials have sought to bar Baffert from Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga, alleging in a recent hearing that the trainer had committed conduct detrimental to the best interests of racing, to the health and safety of horses and jockeys, and to its business operations.

The necropsy results for Medina Spirit, who died in December after a timed workout at Santa Anita Park, were inconclusive, but they indicated that the colt most likely died of a heart attack. Hair, blood and urine samples showed no evidence of doping, California racing officials said Friday.

The disqualification, along with recent guilty pleas and convictions of prominent trainers and veterinarians for doping horses, lends urgency to the implementation of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act.

Set to take effect July 1, 2022, it calls for a board overseen by the Federal Trade Commission to write rules and penalties to be enforced by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which regulates Olympic and other elite athletes in the United States. The agency revealed cyclist Lance Armstrong’s cheating and issued him a lifetime suspension in 2012.

USADA’s role is uncertain, however, because the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, which is charged with creating a framework and budget for enforcement, could not reach an agreement with the agency. The authority is exploring other options for an enforcement entity, but it has indicated that it may try to reopen negotiations with USADA.

With Medina Spirit’s apparent victory at Churchill Downs last year, Baffert won his seventh Kentucky Derby, surpassing a record set by Ben Jones, who last won in 1952.

Instead, however, Baffert and Medina Spirit join Maximum Security and Dancer’s Image as the only horses to have their Derby victories overturned.

In 2019, Maximum Security was first across the finish line, only to be disqualified for almost knocking over a rival horse in the far turn and slowing the momentum of others. The next year, Maximum Security’s trainer, Jason Servis, was among 27 people charged by federal prosecutors in a wide-ranging scheme to secretly dope horses and cheat the betting public. He is awaiting trial.

In 1968, Dancer’s Image’s victory was taken away after a drug test showed the presence of a banned anti-inflammatory drug. That case lingered in the courts for four years before the disqualification was finally upheld.

Bettors were not made whole by the Kentucky decision.

While those who backed Medina Spirit kept their winnings, those who supported Mandaloun are still left with losing tickets, a situation that prompted a class-action lawsuit on their behalf.

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