Baffert takes a ‘gut punch’ as thoroughbred racing again shows its soft underbelly By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports May 12, 2021 at 7:00 pm With his shock of white hair and seemingly unflappable cool, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert might be the most recognizable face in horseracing. All eyes were on him at the Kentucky Derby on May 1 after Medina’s Spirit powered its way to a first-place finish. He was still the center of attention on Sunday when Churchill Downs officials announced his suspension after his winning horse failed a post-race drug test. And, once again, horseracing was making news for the wrong reasons. Baffert went from the winner’s circle to the goat pen in less than 24 hours. But it’s the thoroughly mixed reputation of the “Sport of Kings” that is taking the beating. Horse trainer Bob Baffert is interviewed after a Triple Crown win/Shutterstock “To be clear, if the findings are upheld, Medina Spirit’s results in the Kentucky Derby will be invalidated and Mandaloun will be declared the winner,” Churchill Downs officials said in a statement. Then, talking even tougher, “… Churchill Downs will not tolerate it. 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.” Baffert’s response was characteristically blunt. “I got the biggest gut-punch in racing for something that I didn’t do,” Baffert said. “And it’s disturbing. It’s an injustice to the horse. … I don’t know what’s going on in racing right now, but there’s something not right. I don’t feel embarrassed. I feel like I was wronged.” He then went on Fox News to further his cause, but I’m not sure whether it helped him as he prepares for the next leg of the Triple Crown. “Churchill Downs came out with that statement. It was pretty harsh,” he said. “We live in a different world now. America’s different. It was like a cancel culture kind of a thing. They’re reviewing it. I haven’t been told anything. We’re prepared to run.” Whoa, there, Seabiscuit. A positive test for a banned substance in a sport notorious for the doping of its athletes isn’t “cancel culture.” (The drug is technically legal under Kentucky racing rules but must be cleared from the animal’s system two weeks before race day.) Baffert vowed transparency and said he planned to do his own investigation, but in many respects, the damage is already done. It’s not as if this is Baffert’s first problem. After testing positive for betamethasone, Medina’s Spirit is the fifth Baffert horse to have failed a drug test in a year. The drug issue comes at a time racing is beset by a long stretch of flat wagering numbers and unprecedented scrutiny from critics who point to increasing numbers of animals breaking down and being destroyed. Marty Irby, executive director of the horse advocacy group Animal Wellness Action, fired off a response to the alleged positive test result that once again puts thoroughbred racing in a harsh light: “The latest doping scandal in U.S. horse racing underscores the need for swift implementation of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act that will address inconsistencies in drug testing and create a uniform national standard of rules and regulations in the sport.” Irby wears his bias on his sleeve, but he believes it’s time for the racing industry to set an example. “If further investigation finds Medina Spirit legitimately tested positive for illegal drugs at the Kentucky Derby, then racing authorities should throw the book at those found guilty of violating the rules and punish them to the fullest extent of the law,” he said in a statement. “American horse racing will be held to a higher standard – there’s no excuse for rigging the ‘fastest two minutes in sports,’ especially at the expense of the horse’s well-being.” Racing handle, at $10.95 billion with fewer races offered, according to Equibase, was down only slightly in the chaotic coronavirus-ravaged 2020 season. That sounds like good news, but it’s essentially a stagnant number over the past decade. Racing handled peaked in 2003 at $15.2 billion. Meanwhile, purses plunged more than 25% to the lowest average payout since 1997. As Bill Finley observes in Thoroughbred Daily News, “When the major sports all shut down due to the coronavirus, horse racing had a window where it was the only legal form of sports wagering available and, thanks to its television presence, one of the few sporting events available for viewing. Whether or not racing picked up new customers during that period is open for debate.” What’s not open for debate is the fact that racing’s most visible day of the year managed to generate just the kind of damaging headlines the sport can’t afford as it tries to outrun its mounting troubles in 2021. John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas columnist and author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.