The trainer Bob Baffert was barred from Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby after Medina Spirit failed a drug test in May shortly after winning the 147th running of America’s greatest horse race. The New York Racing Association has renewed its efforts to ban him from its circuit.
So how is Baffert able to run eight horses for millions of dollars in purse money on Friday and Saturday in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in Southern California?
The trainer has friends in high places: on the Breeders’ Cup board, to be precise.
Baffert will saddle horses for six of those board members at Del Mar. Six more either own horses in Baffert’s stable or stand stallions that he once trained.
So it was hardly a surprise, after a review and a board vote last month, that they decided that Baffert could compete in the Breeders’ Cup with the horses some of them own.
What did that review entail? Did any board members with financial ties to Baffert — all but two of the 14 — recuse themselves from deciding his fate?
You are not allowed to know.
Drew Fleming, the Breeders’ Cup president and chief executive, declined to answer detailed questions from The New York Times, as did individual board members.
Instead the organization put Baffert on what amounts to the “double secret probation” Dean Wormer handed down to the Delta fraternity in the movie “Animal House.”
Baffert’s horses, the organization said, will be tested more often than his competitors’. They will have extra eyes surveilling them. And if one of them tests positive for anything, the Breeders’ Cup board members will drop the hammer on Baffert.
How did horse racing get here? Again?
Start with a culture of doping that has been pervasive for decades, then throw in a lack of infrastructure (and will) to make and enforce rules. Finally, add decision-making driven by greed rather than concern for the health and safety of the horses, the riders and the public.
Outside the Triple Crown events, horse racing makes national headlines only when tragedy and scandal are involved. There has been a lot of both recently — 30 dead horses in a season at Santa Anita Park and federal indictments accusing more than two dozen trainers and veterinarians from Florida to New York of doping their animals.
By the way, all but a few of them have pleaded guilty.
On Saturday, Medina Spirit will compete in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, the marquee and final race of the two-day festival. Whether he wins or loses, horseplayers and casual sports fans alike will wonder if he ran drug free.
The colt crossed the finish line first in the Derby on May 1, only to flunk a post-race test for a corticosteroid that is prohibited on race day. That result has since been contested in state and federal courts and will be for perhaps years to come.
To understand why Medina Spirit will be allowed to run, you need to understand Baffert’s outsize role in the races that proceed the Classic.
In the $2 million Juvenile, the race that often produces the next year’s Kentucky Derby favorites, there will be two colts trained by Baffert, Pinehurst and Barossa, who are co-owned by three Breeders’ Cup board members, including Barbara Banke, the board’s chairman and the owner of Jackson Family Wines. Pinehurst was bred by a fourth board member, Fred W. Hertrich III.
The $1 million Dirt Mile, $1 million Filly & Mare Sprint and $2 million Distaff also feature horses owned by board members and trained by Baffert. At stake is the purse money — 60 percent goes to the winner — plus the potential for tens of millions of dollars more for owners of Breeders’ Cup-winning horses that enter the breeding industry.
The colts can potentially become stallions. The offspring of fast, pedigreed mares are more expensive at the thoroughbred auctions.
Baffert has demonstrated that he adds value to horses.
Counting Medina Spirit’s victory, Baffert has won a record seven Derbys, surpassing a record set by Ben Jones. He trained the two most recent Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018), both of whom stand at Coolmore Stud, which is also represented on the Breeders’ Cup board.
Baffert is a member of the sport’s Hall of Fame and is currently seventh in the national training standings. He trained horses that have failed 30 drug tests — including five in a 13-month span, Medina Spirit among them.
Last year, the sport acknowledged that it had a drug problem and backed federal legislation to deal with it.
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act is supposed to take effect next summer. 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.
The Breeders’ Cup and its board members (and Baffert employers) were loud proponents of drug-free racing. But they apparently decided it made more sense to get pushed, rather than jump on their own, into a new era.