Baffert’s serial doping and risible excuses a sad indictment of American racing
Evidence suggests sport’s problems go much deeper than top trainer’s indiscretions
Trainer Bob Baffert raises the trophy after winning the Kentucky Derby with Medina Spirit, his seventh career Kentucky Derby win, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Photograph: Andy Lyons/Getty Images
For a while, cobra venom was the drug of choice among American trainers, injected just under the skin in small quantities to deaden the nerves so the horses’ brains wouldn’t receive messages about pain and they could run hard through injury.
Demorphin was wildly popular for the same reason, either synthetically produced or harvested from the backs of South American frogs, it was reckoned to be 40 times more potent than morphine.
Viagra was knocking around the barns too, apparently something to do with increasing cardiac output and controlling pulmonary haemorrhages in the animals.
In terms of improving performance by any chemical means necessary, nothing was ever off-limits (including cocaine and elephant tranquillizers) even if meant causing fatal damage to the horses. Which it often did.
The rancid culture of cheating in racing makes rival drug circuses like professional cycling and athletics seem like Teddy Bears’ Picnics.
So, news that Medina Spirit, the Kentucky Derby winner trained by Bob Baffert, tested positive for excess amounts of betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory, should not come as any surprise. The fifth doping case against Baffert in 12 months, the 31st of his career. Career-ending numbers in any other game.
With gaudy statistics like those, even Sports Illustrated, the magazine that shamelessly carried so much water for Lance Armstrong at the height of his fraudulence, declared of Baffert the other day, “at this point, the dog has eaten a semester’s work of homework”.
Certainly, the trainer needs to at least come up with more original excuses. His speculation that Medina Spirit’s failed test might have been the result of a stable hand who was on cough medicine urinating in the stall was a tired reworking of the very same yarn he spun when Merneith tested positive for Dextrorphan, believed to calm nerves in horses, in California last year.
Baffert has his own canon of tall tales, each vainly attempting to explain away his recurring bad luck when it comes to his charges somehow crossing paths with so many performance-enhancing substances.
He blamed Justify being found to have excess scopolamine, a motion-sickness drug, on the presence of jimsonweed, a plant that grows where hay and straw are produced in California. He reckoned two of his runners in Arkansas tested positive for lidocaine, a painkiller, because one of their handlers had been applying it to himself for back pain when he inadvertently touched the horses.
None of that unseemly business was mentioned on NBC when Medina Spirit delivered Baffert his record seventh Kentucky Derby triumph earlier this month, a feat underlining his stature as the public face of a very niche sport in America.
Most people who tune in for the three races that comprise the Triple Crown each spring (the Preakness is this Saturday at Pimlico) couldn’t name a jockey or any other trainer but they know Baffert as the fella with the impressive head of silver hair, the ubiquitous shades, and the habit of winning the big races.
Now they know him too as the charlatan who went on Fox News the other day and tried to blame his latest disgrace on “cancel culture”.
Deploying the trigger words of the right-wing may have generated enough headlines to distract some from the business at hand but, around racing, the scuttlebutt is about somebody who has long regarded himself as bigger than the sport and often been treated accordingly by complicit authorities.
His immediate suspension by Churchill Downs last weekend until Medina Spirit’s second sample is tested was the longest ban he’s ever received, even though his horses have previously tested positive after winning prestigious races such as the Kentucky Oaks, the Arkansas Derby and the Santa Anita Derby.
A little over a year has passed since Baffert, seemingly conscious of how his reputation was taking a severe battering, pledged to hire new medical personnel and to ensure “the wellbeing of horses in my care and rule compliance.”
Just three months later, Merneith fell foul of the testers, his trainer blamed the groom peeing in the hay and everybody could see how seriously Baffert was taking the whole business.
When it comes to doping in baseball, the NFL or just about any sport, America’s default setting is complete indifference. Except in this case. Drugging racehorses so they can compete, no matter what their physical ailments or condition, has resulted in massive death tolls, over 1000 fatalities on tracks in 2019 alone.
After one runner per week died at Santa Anita in California over a 12-month spell, the District Attorney came in to launch an inquiry. Nothing came of that investigation but, last year, the FBI arrested 27 people around New York and New Jersey, including trainers and vets, for their part in a ring distributing performance-enhancing drugs.
Some 39 American racetracks have closed in the past two decades and, in an overdue attempt to clean up the sport, the United States Congress passed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act back in December.
This legislation ensures that, from July 1st of next year, the Federal Trade Commission and the United States Anti-Doping Agency will implement a new system of rules and penalties to try to protect horses.
That some in the industry quickly filed a lawsuit to try to prevent that kind of oversight demonstrates the problems here go much deeper than Baffert’s serial doping and risible excuses.
That said, punishing him properly for once might be a start.