By Lenn Robbins
A man is innocent until proven guilty. A horse is innocent. Which makes the charges levelled against Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert more reprehensible if proven true.
Churchill Downs, where the grandest of American thoroughbred races is run, released a scathing statement Sunday, suspending Baffert from the track after his Kentucky Derby-winning horse Medina Spirit failed a postrace drug test. The length of the suspension wasn’t specified but Churchill Downs can overturn the results of the race if a second sample tests positive
“Churchill Downs will not tolerate it,” the statement read. “Given the seriousness of the alleged offense, Churchill Downs will immediately suspend Bob Baffert, the trainer of Medina Spirit, from entering any horses at Churchill Downs Racetrack.”
It turns out that this is hardly the first time one of Baffert’s horses has failed a drug test. Medina Spirit is Baffert’s fifth horse known to have failed a drug test in just over a year, ESPN reported.
What we have here is Baffert meets Lance Armstrong, arguably the worst cheater in sports history. In fact, Baffert is sounding a lot like Armstrong did before he finally came clean.
“I know I’m the most scrutinized trainer and have millions of eyes on me,” Baffert said at a hastily-called news conference Sunday to dispute the allegations. “But you know what? I don’t have a problem with that. The last thing I want to do is do something that would jeopardize the greatest two minutes in sports.”
Armstrong was proud of saying he was the most drug-tested athlete in history and never tested positive.
“I have never doped, and, unlike many of my accusers, I have competed as an endurance athlete for 25 years with no spike in performance, passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one,” said Armstrong.
With the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees the testing of U.S. Olympic athletes, closing on him, Armstrong confessed to being a cheat in a 2013 Oprah Winfrey interview. The same dynamics are in play here. Horse racing is about to implement the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which takes effect in July of 2022. If Baffert is a cheat, horse racing is on to him.
So what does Baffert do? He follows the blueprint laid out by too many politicians of late. Someone is out to get him.
“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” Baffert said. “I know everybody is not out to get me, but there’s definitely something wrong. Why is it happening to me? You know, there’s problems in racing, but it’s not Bob Baffert.”
Then who is the problem? A thoroughbred trainer spends countless hours around his horses, keeping careful track of every aspect of the magnificent creature’s life.
Yet last month, Baffert won an appeals case before the Arkansas Racing Commission, which had suspended him for 15 days for positive drug tests involving two of his horses in 2020. Baffert said they were inadvertently exposed to the drug, lidocaine, a pain-killer. Consider the ramifications. A horse in pain was doped up enough to race.
Consider this: How would you react if your doctor acknowledged that he or she inadvertently exposed you to the wrong medication? Lawyer anyone?
Medina Spirit tested positive for 21 picograms of the steroid betamethasone — slightly more than double the threshold allowed in Kentucky according to Baffert. Betamethasone can be used to relieve discomfort in horse’s joints accorinding to the Louisville Courier Journal. Baffert claims he has no idea how this could have happened.
“This shouldn’t have happened,” Baffert said. “There’s a problem somewhere. It didn’t come from us.”
This is Baffert’s defense: Someone outside of his stable, a cabal of Baffert saboteurs, is responsible for Medina Spirit testing positive. The winner of seven Kentucky Derbies, more than any other trainer if this victory isn’t overturned, is telling us that Bob Baffert is the victim.
As for Medina Spirit?
“He’s a great horse,” Baffert said. “He doesn’t deserve this.”
Maybe he doesn’t deserve Baffert most of all.