Comment: All bets off until horse racing confronts drug issue

Although trainer Bob Baffert denies doping his horse, racing’s problems follow the money.

By Timothy L. O’Brien / Bloomberg Opinion

It’s difficult — almost next to impossible — to predict the outcome of the Kentucky Derby, the jewel in thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. There are many variables.

Jockeys and their horses are under pressure to perform in a marquee race, the field of runners is the largest they will ever see, track conditions vary and are uncertain until race day, and it’s the first time any of the three-year-old horses have run in a mile-and-a-quarter competition.

But Bob Baffert, one of the sport’s most prominent trainers, has been a consistent Derby winner for decades. I interviewed him in 1996 after one of his horses, Cavonnier, almost won the race before being nosed out at the finish line by Grindstone, a horse that had competed in only five races before that and had never won a Grade I stakes race. That was Baffert’s first Derby, and the loss crushed him briefly.

“Will we ever get back here again?” Baffert told me. “I’ll never suffer a beat like this again in my life.”

Baffert won the Derby the next year with Silver Charm and the year after that with Real Quiet. His horse won again in 2002. He came close in subsequent years and then won the Triple Crown in 2015 and 2018, with American Pharoah and Justify. Last year, his horse, Authentic, won. Another Baffert thoroughbred, Medina Spirit, won a $1.8 million victory on May 1.

Medina Spirit failed a drug test after the race, and he may be disqualified. Officials at Churchill Downs, the legendary track in Louisville, Ky., where the Derby has been run for nearly 150 years, have temporarily suspended Baffert from entering horses there. An investigation is underway. If it’s rigorous, it will lead to reform of a troubled and often tawdry sport, where gambling, horse breeding, drug abuse, wealth, animal abuse and glamour intersect.

“These are pretty serious accusations here, but we’re going to get to the bottom of it and find out. We know we didn’t do it,” Baffert told reporters. He called the test results an “injustice to the horse.” Yeah, well, it’s an injustice to a lot of things, including common sense.

Elite, Hall of Fame trainers such as Baffert monitor their horses closely. It boggles the imagination that anything gets into a thoroughbred’s bloodstream without its trainer knowing; particularly before a main event like the Derby. A drug called betamethasone was coursing through Medina Spirit’s system in abundant amounts, officials discovered; at twice the allowed limit. The drug is used to reduce pain and swelling in a horse’s joints, and it has to be injected. Horses have hoofs and can’t hold needles themselves.

“I’m not a conspiracy (theorist); I know everybody’s not out to get me. But there’s definitely something wrong. Why is it happening, you know, to me?” Baffert also complained to reporters. “There’s problems in racing, but it’s not Bob Baffert.”

Baffert, who wields a mane of silver hair, sunglasses and backslapping affability to great effect, is immensely likable. He makes himself accessible to the media and has won the support of wealthy horse owners, corporate sponsors and a sport that has long been past its prime. His horses have won more than 3,000 races and hauled in purses worth more than $320 million.

He also has had doping allegations and a suspension leveled at him before and, as The New York Times has noted, his rivals in the racing business think he’s a cheater.

But Baffert keeps galloping forward. Horse racing is a cozy business. Although its profitability and prestige have waned steadily over the years, and off-track betting and online gambling haven’t revived its fortunes as much as its supporters have hoped, horse flesh trades well. In addition to bragging rights and the joy they take in raising a world-class thoroughbred, owners can hit the jackpot when a championship horse is sold for stud. That makes winning trainers valuable.

Baffert’s horse Justify failed a drug test before winning the 2018 Triple Crown, but Derby officials didn’t bar the horse from running. Justify’s breeding rights were later sold for $60 million.

Jockeys and gamblers may come and go, horses may falter or come up lame on the track, but owners and trainers can still make out nicely, year after year. Until they fully reckon with how the industry conspires to keep it that way, people are going to suspect that the fix is in.

Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

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