- Medina Spirit, the Kentucky Derby winner disgraced for failing a post-race drug test, has died.
- The horse’s death has once again shed a light on the dark underbelly of thoroughbred racing.
- Trainers are incentivized to compromise the wellness of their horses in pursuit of fame and fortune.
Medina Spirit, the winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby who was shrouded in controversy following a failed drug test, died on Monday.
The lightning-fast colt collapsed during the final stretch of his workout at famed California track Santa Anita. He was just 3 years old at the time of his sudden death — a far cry from the 25-to-30-year average life expectancy of a modern domesticated horse.
Medina Spirit’s premature death is jarring. And given his widespread notoriety for testing positive for an illicit substance after winning horse racing’s most prestigious event, Medina Spirit’s untimely demise is perhaps the most prominent example of a racehorse gone too soon.
But he’s far from the only racehorse to die before his time, and he isn’t even the only young horse to die under his trainer’s care.
The death of Medina Spirit is once again shedding light on the dark underbelly of thoroughbred racing — and raising questions about the morality of the sport.
Medina Spirit’s trainer has achieved incredible success — but the ethics have been murky
Medina Spirit’s owner, the Saudi Arabian businessman and venture capitalist Amr Zedan, entrusted the young Dark Bay into the care of Bob Baffert. The 68-year-old is well-known in the horse racing world as one of the highest-achieving trainers in the sport.
His resume speaks for itself. Baffert’s horses have won a record seven Kentucky Derbies, seven Preakness Stakes, and three Belmont Stakes. And both horses who have earned the illustrious Triple Crown in the modern era — American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify three years later — trained under the 2009 inductee to the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame.
But his reputation doesn’t solely extend to his success on the track.
The Nogales, Arizona, native has a questionable ethical history. In just one year, five of Baffert’s trainees were found to have banned substances in their systems. And the series of failed drug tests began just two years after Baffert’s second Triple Crown winner, Justify, failed a drug test mere weeks before winning the 2018 Kentucky Derby.
Had those in charge followed the rules of horse racing as written, The New York Times reported more than a year later, Justify would have been banned from running at Churchill Downs. Instead, the horse — and Baffert, too — went on to achieve the ultimate glory of winning the Triple Crown.
Over four decades, nearly 30 horses failed drug tests while training under Baffert, according to the Association of Racing Commissioners International. A litany of excuses and ever-shifting goalposts have allowed the white-haired multi-millionaire to continue his dominance of the sport.
“He’ll do anything to win, and he’s got all his bases covered politically,” Barry Irwin, owner of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, told The Washington Post. “And because of that, he has become arrogant as hell.”
“He’s Mr. Teflon.”
Baffert’s reign has come at a significant cost; at least 75 horses have died in his care since 2000
This year, a bombshell investigation from The Washington Post revealed that Baffert is among the trainers with the highest number of horse fatalities in California. Only two horse trainers in the entire state have racked up more equine deaths than Baffert, but the sport’s most prominent winner has the highest rate of fatalities per races run.
Monty Roberts, a trainer who has been vocal about the need for reform in the sport for the benefit of the animals, told The Post that “if it surprised me, it would be that I expected more” fatalities from Baffert’s camp.
“Bob Baffert has moved his way up the ladder to the extent that he has the most influential, the wealthiest owners in the industry, that he takes on the highest-quality horses possible — because he wins races,” Roberts added. “And he pushes the envelope to the extent that they give their lives for his bank account.”
Only once has Baffert faced a serious investigation into his conduct related to his horses’ deaths. In 2013, seven of his horses mysteriously dropped dead in rapid succession. An investigation from the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) found that the horses all had thyroxine in their systems. Thyroxine is a medication used to treat conditions rarely, if ever, seen among racehorses.
Studies have suggested that unnecessary use of thyroxine can result in serious, often fatal heart conditions in horses. But trainers looking to win races and give their horses any possible edge have administered the drug to help boost the horses’ metabolisms.
Baffert himself told the CHRB as part of the 2013 investigation that “he had used thyroxine for about over five years because he thought the medication helped ‘build up’ his horses.” Most, if not all, of his horses had been administered the drug in their food.
Still, Baffert faced no repercussions for the seven sudden horse deaths at Hollywood Park. Though the final report said the rapid fatalities were “undeniably exceptional,” investigators found no evidence of wrongdoing and could not determine “a definitive explanation for the highly unusual sudden death clustering.”
Reporting from The Post, however, suggests that the veterinary official responsible for official clearing Baffert of any culpability may have feared for their job while investigating one of horse racing’s most powerful individuals. Their journalists discovered “a push to have the veterinary official removed from office, supported by a trade group with Baffert among its directors.”
Medina Spirit’s miraculous rise and rapid downfall could finally spur Baffert’s ouster
Years after his 2013 investigation from the CHRB, Baffert took on a markedly ambitious project when Zedan asked him to turn the 2-year-old horse he bought for just $35,000 into a champion. As Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde wrote after the Kentucky Derby, most horses competing in top-tier thoroughbred racing command hundreds of thousands of dollars for purchase.
Not Medina Spirit. He was the definition of an underdog, defying the odds — 12-1 heading into the Derby — to win horse racing’s most prestigious race.
But the feel-good story of David outpacing a stampede of high-priced Goliaths fell apart before the ink was dry in the history books; news got out that Medina Spirit had failed a post-race drug test just days after he’d crossed the finish line a half-length ahead of Mandaloun. The test showed that Medina Spirit had the banned substance betamethasone, an injectable corticosteroid that helps reduce pain and swelling in horses’ joints, in his system.
But Baffert vehemently denied the doping allegations, even going so far as to insinuate that he had been framed.
“We did not give it to him,” Baffert said just after Medina Spirit’s positive test. “The vet, no one, has ever treated him with it. This is a gut punch for something I didn’t do. It’s disturbing. … I don’t know what’s going on in racing right now, but there’s something not right.”
“I don’t feel embarrassed,” he added. “I feel like I was wronged. We’re going to do our own investigation.”
Two days later, Baffert reversed course, attributing the test results to an anti-fungal ointment applied to Medina Spirit to treat a rash before the race. When a laboratory at the University of California, Davis, confirmed the failed test a month after the Derby, disqualification was — and remains — all but certain.
Medina Spirit was set to lose the title, with Baffert poised to relinquish the record for most-ever Kentucky Derby victories. Churchill Downs suspended Baffert and his barn from entering any horses into races at their track for two years. And the New York Racing Association — which oversees Belmont Park, Saratoga Race Course, and Aqueduct Racetrack — “took emergency action in May to suspend Bob Baffert from racing or training” at its facilities, NYRA Senior Director of Communications Patrick McKenna told Insider.
“The New York Racing Association (NYRA) is committed to protecting the sport’s integrity and ensuring it is conducted safely,” he added. “In furtherance of those same goals, NYRA is moving forward with an independent hearing beginning on January 24 to determine whether Mr. Baffert’s actions warrant the suspension of his privilege to participate at NYRA.”
Two weeks after the Derby, the disgraced horse lost whatever chance he still had for a Triple Crown by finishing third at Preakness Stakes. He placed in several less-esteemed races after that, but the loss at Pimlico seemed to divert attention away from Medina Spirit and Baffert.
That is, until the horse’s untimely death this week.
“My entire barn is devastated by this news,” Baffert told The Washington Post. “Medina Spirit was a great champion, a member of our family who was loved by all, and we are deeply mourning his loss. I will always cherish the proud and personal memories of Medina Spirit and his tremendous spirit.”
While Baffert told The Post that Medina Spirit died of a heart attack, animal rights groups and regulators alike insisted that the equine’s “cause of death cannot be determined until the necropsy and toxicology tests have been completed.”
In a statement provided to Insider, PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo said the organization “urges Santa Anita and Del Mar officials to bar Baffert, pending the outcome of an investigation and a necropsy.”
“It’s premature to say that Medina Spirit died of a heart attack or what the true cause of his fatal collapse was, given that many of trainer Bob Baffert’s horses have suddenly dropped dead,” Guillermo continued. “All of Medina Spirit’s veterinary records must be seized, and a thorough investigation must be conducted.
“Baffert’s attorneys must not be allowed to control the narrative.”
The dark underbelly of horse racing is not limited to one bad actor
What happened to Medina Spirit is not new or particularly uncommon. In a sport where any slight advantage may be worth millions of dollars, trainers have a significant incentive to bend the rules and compromise the long-term wellness of their horses in pursuit of favorable short-term results.
Take Santa Anita, the racetrack where Medina Spirit died on Monday. In 2019 alone, 37 horses died while training or racing at the Arcadia, California, facility, according to The Washington Post. While a CHRB investigation into the matter found no evidence of criminal activity, the board found that many of the horses had ailments related to over-exercise.
The CHRB also found that “many of the trainers who worked at Santa Anita felt pressured to race their horses despite their health,” according to The Post.
Medina Spirit’s demise reeks of a similar stench. But whether or not misconduct is at the heart of his untimely death — and whether or not Baffert is held responsible — the rot of thoroughbred racing does not start or end there.
In The Washington Post’s data mentioned above and analysis of horse deaths in California, Baffert ranked third-most in total deaths since 2000. Six other trainers accounted for more than 50 equine deaths in that span, and in total, the 10-worst offenders in the Golden State had 617 dead horses on their hands.
And that’s only accounting for 10 trainers in a single state.
When a racehorse of Medina Spirit’s stature suddenly drops dead at three years old, it’s tempting to focus attention on weeding out the bad actors who may be at fault. But with horses receiving dangerous cocktails of unwarranted — if not illicit — drugs and being worked to death all across the sport, it’s clear Baffert’s conduct is a symptom of a much larger disease.
Congress took aim at those larger issues by passing the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2020. The legislation, which takes effect in July of 2022, focuses on “developing and implementing a horseracing anti-doping and medication control program and a racetrack safety program” within the United States.
It’s a step in the right direction, to be sure. But so long as the sport continues to incentivize short-term success at the expense of the health and wellness of racehorses themselves, competitors will surely find innovative ways to push ethical and legal boundaries in pursuit of wealth and glory.
All at the expense of horses like Medina Spirit.