Opinion: Medina Spirit saga is exposing horse racing’s incompetence on doping

In a functional, competently run sport, there would not be a Monday morning in which the legitimacy of its showcase event was up in the air more than a week later. There would not be drawn-out, litigious uncertainty about whether a competitor in the middle of a doping inquiry would be allowed to enter the next big race. And there would not be a cartoonish figure in the middle of the scandal going on cable news to blather about “cancel culture” without being accompanied by a laugh track.

And yet, within the Potemkin village that is horse racing governance in the United States, this was a very real sequence of events that spun off from Sunday’s bombshell that Medina Spirit had tested positive for a small but illegal amount of the anti-inflammatory drug betamethasone coming out of the Kentucky Derby, putting the colt’s win in jeopardy and an already beaten-down sport on the precipice of becoming a punchline.

In horse racing’s zeal to plumb the depths of its own brokenness, there are no winners, only losers. It’s already a long and growing list. 

Bob Baffert with Medina Spirit a day after winning the Kentucky Derby. (Photo: Pat McDonogh/The Courier Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

There’s the Maryland Jockey Club, which threatened in a statement to deny Medina Spirit entry into the Preakness but moved its draw for this weekend’s Preakness from Monday to Tuesday, hoping for perhaps some clarity on whether a split sample would confirm the test result. Ultimately, nobody in horse racing thinks Maryland racing officials truly have the spine to keep Medina Spirit out of the race, either due to legal threats or, from a more cynical view, the potential ratings and wagering bonanza of having the antihero of the moment in the race. 

There’s horse racing’s antiquated system of drug testing itself, where different states have different rules, positive tests are supposed to be kept quiet until a long appeal process plays out, and there’s little quality control in the testing process itself or the labs used to analyze the samples. 

And then there’s trainer Bob Baffert, who has responded to the revelation that his seventh Kentucky Derby win might be stripped away by going on a poorly thought-out media offensive in which he has maintained his innocence and doubled down on the notion that a “knee-jerk, cancel culture kind of reaction” has robbed him of due process, as he said on Dan Patrick’s radio show.

(If accountability for doping in sports is part of cancel culture, the phrase has indeed lost what little substance it had to begin with. At least he didn’t wave off his critics as being too “woke,” though tomorrow is another day, so we’ll see what happens.)

To top it all off, Baffert has said he’s not going to Baltimore this weekend for the Preakness because he doesn’t want to be a distraction. Earth to Bob: If you didn’t want to be a distraction, you’d take the horses back to California with you and let the Triple Crown go on without you. 

In reality, though, to call any of this a distraction misses the point completely. If anything, this is bringing into clear focus how out-of-step horse racing is with other major sports, where there’s at least a serious attempt to find those who are doping and to punish them accordingly. 

If there’s any good news for horse racing, it’s that former President Donald Trump signed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act last December, which among other things will standardize medication rules nationally and hand over administration of drug testing to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

But that partnership isn’t slated to start until July 1, 2022, and horse racing couldn’t hold out that long without careening into disaster. 

If USADA had been running the anti-doping program now, it’s highly likely that the second sample on Medina Spirit would have already been tested and the results would be known. There wouldn’t be a need for the Preakness to hold off on its draw, or for Baffert to go on TV to plead his case and plant seeds of doubt about sabotage or contamination. 

Instead, USADA would have known the stakes and demanded an orderly and expedient process over the weekend like it has many times when dealing with positive drug tests of Olympians, sometimes even right before the Olympic Games. 

Beyond that, because of regular out-of-competition testing, USADA might have caught the betamethasone positive before the Derby and knocked Medina Spirit out of the starting gate in the first place. 

And regardless of what drugs were in a horse’s system, there would be no audience for conspiracy theories coming from the trainer about samples being messed with because the standards for labs running the test and the centralized leadership of those labs would be stringent and transparent under a USADA model. The results would be the results, and instead of a debate about cancel culture, we’d have answers. 

“While we are not involved in this case and can’t comment directly on it, what is essential for clean sport is that the results management process is robust, fast and fair and that it exonerates the truly innocent while holding the guilty fully accountable in a timely fashion,” USADA chief executive Travis Tygart told USA TODAY Sports. “Of course, all athletes, coaches, trainers and others are innocent unless and until proven otherwise through the established legal process — a fundamental element of a trusted and effective program.” 

Of course, no such process really exists right now in horse racing. Baffert suggested in interviews on Monday that he was upset that word of the positive test started to leak Saturday night, before the split-sample confirmation, which prompted him to call a news conference Sunday morning and acknowledge it head-on. But what he really means is he wanted the Triple Crown to continue without anyone knowing the positive test existed, and that it would only come out publicly after the split-sample test and all other challenges had been exhausted behind the scenes — well after horse racing’s annual moment had faded from the public consciousness. 

That was the playbook, after all, that allowed Baffert’s eventual Triple Crown winner Justify to run in the 2018 Kentucky Derby after he had tested positive for scopolamine following the Santa Anita Derby a month earlier. 

Horse racing is so used to delayed justice on doping that in Baffert’s mind, he’s the victim, not the connections of the horses who didn’t have betamethasone in their system on Derby Day. 

But now the sport is going to get what it truly deserves if Medina Spirit is allowed to run in the Preakness. If he loses, the Derby result will look even more suspicious. If he wins, horse racing will get to spend the next three weeks talking about a tainted chance at the Triple Crown. 

It didn’t have to be this way for horse racing, but its leaders and stakeholders were so unserious for so long about addressing its doping problem that the only people truly in charge were the dirty trainers who could evade drug tests. 

Now, whether Baffert is guilty or innocent, there’s no real system to lean on as the sport careens into crisis. Instead, we get a millionaire trainer screaming that his millionaire colleagues are trying to cancel him.

It seems obvious that Medina Spirit shouldn't be allowed to run in the Preakness until there’s clarity on whether his Kentucky Derby win was a sham. But with nobody in charge, the only thing being cancelled is a reason to believe this sport has enough credibility to care. 

Source: Read Full Article