Bob Baffert needs to stop talking.
And stop doping, of course. That’s what his accusers would say after the horse trainer’s possible fifth drug violation in just over a year. The fifth is the biggest. Perhaps you’ve heard. Kentucky Derby. Medina Spirit. A positive drug test for betamethasone, a corticosteroid, with the split sample sent to an independent lab for confirmation.
Baffert is the one who made the announcement of the initial finding. To get ahead of the story, Baffert beat Churchill Downs to the punch, holding a press conference outside his Barn 33 on Sunday morning in which he announced that his team had been notified of the positive test.
Then Baffert went on the offensive. He denied wrongdoing. He said it didn’t happen. He said no one from his barn had given Medina Spirit that particular medication. He raised the possibility of contamination. Or a false positive. Or tampering. Or that someone was out to get him.
Monday, Baffert took to the airwaves. And the weird went pro. The trainer went on Fox News and claimed that this was all part of “cancel culture” that had infiltrated racing. On the “Dan Patrick Show,” he recited the story of a previous testing issue in which a groom had urinated on hay in the barn after taking cough medicine and a horse ate the hay.
“Because of the new regulations the regulators have put, they’re testing these horses at contaminated levels and it’s been a horrible experience,” he said.
By Monday night, even Baffert had apparently had enough. According to the NBC’ News analyst Howard Fineman, the trainer canceled a CNBC interview at the last minute. A late scratch, Fineman called it. And Baffert said he would not be joining Medina Spirit in Baltimore for the Preakness because “I don’t want to be a distraction.”
On Tuesday, Baffert released a statement through his attorney saying that the ointment Otomax had been used on Medina Spirit leading up to the Kentucky Derby. Otomax contains betamethasone.
Disclaimer: I like Bob Baffert. He’s great with the media. He’s accessible. He’s amusing. As a general rule, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. I’ve covered his career through his record seven Derby victories and two Triple Crowns.
Do I know what goes on inside Baffert’s barn? I do not. And the data is damning, with one positive drug test after another, from Justify in 2018, Charlatan and Gamine in Arkansas in 2020, Gamine in the 2020 Kentucky Oaks, now Medina Spirit in the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Each time, Baffert has offered a “it wasn’t me” explanation.
We’re not talking hardcore PED violations. This isn’t the 2020 scandal in which trainers Jason Servis, Jorge Navarro and 25 others were indicted for alleged roles in a doping conspiracy. Baffert’s violations deal mainly with anti-inflammatories.
That makes you wonder about a link to Baffert’s training methods. After Medina Spirit’s Derby win, opposing trainer Doug O’Neill remarked, “You know Bob is going to have his horses dead-fit for this race.” In his preparation, does Baffert use anti-inflammatories to get his desired training result? And is he not backing off those medications soon enough to avoid the new, tougher rules on race days?
Those rules are there for a reason, especially the tougher restrictions enacted since the tragic spate of numerous equine deaths at Santa Anita in 2019.
“Claims that this won’t affect the performance of the horse in the race miss one of the main points of the rule,” Ed Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, said in a statement Monday critical of Baffert’s response. “It’s not just about whether something can make a horse run faster, but also if masking of pain or injury might put the horse at risk. Collectively the more stringent rules are helping reduce breakdowns.”
Meanwhile, Baffert has returned to California, where he needs to let the facts play out. If the split sample confirms Churchill Downs’ initial result, as expected, Baffert has the right to appeal, where he can state his case to the people who really matter in this situation, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.
The rest is public posturing.
“As far as cancel culture is concerned,” Martin said his statement, “I have no idea what the hell he is talking about.”