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Fallout From The 2021 Kentucky Derby

Published: May 10, 2021 3:41 pm ET

Last Comment: May 15, 2021 6:10 pm ET | 8 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

The Kentucky Derby has made headlines across several mainstream media outlets beyond its usual coverage in light of recent news that the winner of the 147th edition, Medina Spirit, received a post-race positive test.

News broke on Sunday (May 9) that a test sample from Medina Spirit showed heightened levels — 21 picograms per milliliter — of betamethasone, a corticosteroid typically used as an anti-inflammatory for conditions such as arthritis. Said drug is barred by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) under new protocols passed in 2020 which prohibits administration of any drug or medication within 24 hours of a race. However, its use is allowed under clearance by the KHRC 14 days prior to a race. Bob Baffert, trainer of Medina Spirit, also faced a betamethasone positive in 2020 when his filly Gamine finished third in the Kentucky Oaks, also at Churchill Downs.

In response to the positive test, Churchill Downs issued a statement suspending trainer Bob Baffert from entering any horses at Churchill Downs. With the Preakness set to run this coming Saturday (May 15), The Stronach Group, owner of Pimlico Racecourse, has yet to decide whether they will allow Baffert to run two horses — Medina Spirit and Concert Tour, winner of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes. The draw for the Preakness will take place Tuesday (May 11) at 4 p.m. (EDT).

Baffert, on Sunday (May 9), spoke to reporters (which can be watched here) about Medina Spirit's positive test. In his opening statement to reporters, he said:

"All I can tell you is that betamethasone, even though it is an allowed therapeutic medication, we did not give it — my veterinarian, nobody here. In fact, Medina Spirit has never been treated with betamethasone. I cannot believe that I’m here before you guys, I never thought I’d be here.

"Yesterday I got the biggest gut punch in racing for something I that didn’t do. This is really disturbing, it’s an injustice to the horse. I feel like, here you win a race and you’re still not, to me, I don’t know what’s going on in racing right now, but something isn’t right. I don’t feel embarrassed. I feel like I was wronged.

"We’re going to do a complete investigation, our own investigation, we’re going to be transparent with the racing commission, like we’ve always been. One thing about it, in California, everything is documented every day, what the horses get. This horse was never treated with that. He’s a great horse. He doesn’t deserve this. He ran a gallant race.

"To me, I just feel, this last 18 months, what I’ve gone through, it’s like all of us right here, just imagine yourselves going to work every day, and if they tested you every day for these levels, these contamination levels, and told you if you tested positive you would be fired, that’s how I feel. I do not feel safe to train. It’s getting worse, and to me, going forward, how do I enjoy training? How do I move forward from this, knowing that something can happen? It’s a complete injustice, but I’m going to fight it tooth and nail, because I owe it to the horse, I owe it to the owner, and to our industry.

"Our industry needs to step up, and we need to do a better job in racing. There’s something wrong right now. I’ve been talking about it, nothing seems to be done about it, but these contamination levels — and 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 to me. There’s problems in racing, but it’s not Bob Baffert. I just want to get that across to you guys."

Baffert and the connections of Medina Spirit have requested testing a split sample from the horse to determine the validity of the original test results. In the event the split sample upholds the initial test results, Medina Spirit will be disqualified and Kentucky Derby runner-up Mandaloun will be declared the winner.

On Monday (May 10), the United States Trotting Association (USTA) — in conjunction with the Harness Racing Medication Collaborative — issued a statement on the Kentucky Derby winner's positive test, which appears below:

On Sunday (May 9), Kentucky Derby winning trainer Bob Baffert (Medina Spirit) announced that his record seventh Derby winner tested positive with a level of 21 picograms (pg)/milliliter (ml) of betamethasone (Editor’s Note: A picogram is one trillionth of a gram), which is above the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s (KHRC) limit of 10 pg/ml that is based upon the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium’s (RMTC) misguided guideline for that medication.

“The Harness Racing Medication Collaborative (HRMC) and the U.S. Trotting Association (USTA) have been out in front of the issue of the threshold level for betamethasone of at least 100 pg/ml since it is a valuable, legal therapeutic medication for racehorses, especially for our Standardbreds who are often treated in more than one joint and race with a much greater frequency than Thoroughbreds,” said USTA President Russell Williams.

“Normal exercise stress can trigger an inflammatory response, causing native immune cells to release substances that cause tissue damage, such as to bone and cartilage in joints,” said Dr. Andy Roberts, a USTA director and member of both the RMTC and the KHRC’s Equine Drug Research Council. “Betamethasone does not mask pain and it does not improve performance when administered by a veterinarian at HRMC-recommended levels. It acts to prevent cellular destruction.

“It is critical to clarify that betamethasone is not ‘a banned steroid’ as has been erroneously reported in multiple media reports,” emphasized Roberts. “This is an absolute falsehood, in no way, shape or form is this drug banned and it would more accurately be referred to as a glucocorticoid.

“And just for everybody’s edification, this medication is commonly used in both human and veterinary medicine, from pediatrics to small animal dermatology. I would venture a guess that in any NBA or NFL game there are numerous participants that have tens of thousands of picograms of betamethasone in their systems when they play,” added Roberts.

“HRMC made recommendations to the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI), once rebuffed and then came back with a scientific study validating them, and our recommendations for betamethsone’s use in harness racing have gone nowhere for more than two years,” explained Williams. “Now all of horse racing is under fire from uninformed media, horseracing critics and animal rights activists for the possibly inaccurate perception that most recognizable trainer in the biggest race in the U.S. cheated.

“If the RMTC had listened to the science and done the right thing, we wouldn’t be in this situation now,” said Williams. “It has been this way for years, as they have catered to their notion of public perception of Thoroughbred racing instead of to the health and welfare of the horse.

“What is most concerning is that RMTC Executive Director Dr. Mary Scollay and RMTC Scientific Advisory Committee Member Dr. Scott Stanley recently were named to the Anti-Doping and Medication Control Standing Committee established by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which has been challenged in federal courts on its constitutionality. If HISA is not struck down, faulty RMTC thinking will become institutionalized at the federal level.”

The threats of that federal legislation reflect the same problems that the RMTC has caused by their inaction and lack of transparency.

“The RMTC has a non-disclosure policy regarding their scientific studies and subsequent decisions on determining thresholds for therapeutic medications,” said U.S. Trotting Association Chairman of the Board Joe Faraldo. “That’s exactly what happened when they arbitrarily lowered the acceptable threshold for betamethasone from 100 pg/ml to 10 pg/ml with no disclosure of the scientific evidence for their decision.

“When our panel of eminent veterinarians on the HRMC recommended to the ARCI, along with 16 state racing commissions including the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission in December 2018 that the appropriate threshold should be set at 100pg/ml in plasma for betamethasone and a recommended withdrawal guideline of 6-1/2 days; no action was taken and it was referred to the RMTC’s Scientific Advisory Committee, weighted heavily with RMTC personnel for further consideration. The result was inevitable,” added Faraldo.

Two years later, on Thursday Dec. 3, 2020, in a presentation at the ARCI Model Rules Committee Meeting in New Orleans, La., HRMC member Dr. Clara Fenger described some unexpectedly high serum concentration levels found in experimental horses that were demonstrated to be caused by environmental contamination in the study* she submitted as part of her proposal.

That study found that “among the biggest environmental substance offenders are dexamethasone and betamethasone.”

As a result, Dr. Fenger, on behalf of the North American Association of Racetrack Veterinarians (NAARV), who was the sponsor of the proposal, called for “alternative penalties for drug positives that are likely to result from environmental contamination and unlikely to have a relevant effect on the animal.”

Betamethasone, because it is a stereoisomer of dexamethasone, which was the focus of the study, is expected to behave in the same fashion. The study made clear that the evidence demonstrated concentrations below 100 pg/ml occur relatively commonly (1 in 50 horses at risk), produces no risk to the integrity of horse racing, and solves the problem of inadvertent environmental transfer.

She recommended to the RMTC’s Scientific Advisory Committee reduced penalties for results between 5 pg/ml and 100 pg/ml, which if adopted would have had a direct application to the current Kentucky Derby situation.

Based upon the recommendation of the HRMC and the National Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association, the USTA supported that proposal.

“The RMTC should have supported it too because that’s what the science demonstrated, but they didn’t. An important part of the mission of medication and testing consortiums and regulators is to inform public opinion about veterinary sports medicine, not to hide from it. Science, not fear, will lead us to what is best for the horse,” concluded Williams.

To read the complete McClure S, Fenger C, et al. study, click here.

*McClure S, Fenger C, Kersh K, Brown B, Maylin G, Duer W, Dirikolu L, Brewer K, Machin J, Tobin T. 2020. Dexamethasone serum concentrations after intravenous administration in horses during race training. Comparative Exercise Physiology, In Press.

May 15, 2021 - 6:10 pmMy friendship is being tried.

Jim Brown SAID...

My friendship is being tried. My friends that bet on the derby with me have been calling me all day, wanting to go through my HPI account to make a bet on the Preakness. I told them I had no desire to bet on the Preakness, or on any other Bob Baffert trained horse.

May 12, 2021 - 7:24 amGood Day All, I come

Good Day All,

I come from the days when you wouldn't dare give a horse so much as a gram of Bute to qualify. Why? Because the qualifiers where tested! In my humble opinion, this would be the best place to start in so far as testing goes. If you have to load one just to get qualified - imagine what needs doing to get the same horse thru a race. Food for thought.
I also (as a young lad) had the privilege of working with some of the best this industry had to offer in New Egypt, New Jersey. The Meadowlands was just opening and I'll let you surmise who those Legends may have been. In any event - in those days a lifetime suspension meant just that. For a LIFETIME and don't let the door hit you on the way out. Don't come back sniveling about your loss of livelihood and the impact on your family. As a trainer your first responsibility was to respect the horse as well as the folks in the stands that helped generate your living, by placing the bets.


May 12, 2021 - 7:07 amYes, 5th positive within the

Angus Gillis SAID...

Yes, 5th positive within the last year and I believe 30 positives in the last 40 years and still considered a great trainer. I think not, maybe a great chemist. Yet still allowed to race in the Preakness, and we wonder why racing has a bad name. We deserve all the bad PR we get as long as we continue to allow these people to race horses.

May 11, 2021 - 9:36 amAnd if the horse tests

And if the horse tests positive after testing because someone gave the horse a banned substance, the trainer responsible for the horse should be banned from racing for life. This would be appreciated by all people, that love the sport and wager on this sport.

May 11, 2021 - 9:31 amI agree with Sean, horses

I agree with Sean, horses should be tested before a race (Standardbred and Thoroughbred), there are regulations that say horses should have to be in the paddock 3 or 4 races prior to the race, that gives the commission plenty of time to test each horse and why is this not been done. If the commission is trying to catch someone they feel is breaking the rules, apply the same penalties if the horse test positive before the race, it does not take a genius to change these rules. (ALL HORSES RACING TODAY WILL BE TESTED AS THEY ENTER THE PADDOCK). It's a one time expense to have a immediate result testing installed in every paddock. INTEGRITY in the horse racing industries. WHY NOT?????

And if the horse tests positive after testing because someone gave the horse a banned substance, the trainer responsible for the horse should be banned from racing for life. This would be appreciated by all people, that love the sport and wager on this sport.

May 11, 2021 - 9:09 amI believe that is Baffert's

Don Patrick SAID...

I believe that is Baffert's 5th positive since last year.


May 10, 2021 - 10:56 pmLance Armstrong won the Tour

Jim Brown SAID...

Lance Armstrong won the Tour De France seven times, Bob Baffert has won seven Kentucky Derbies. Let's hope his legacy in racing does not end like Lance Armstrong's did. What happened to Lance Armstrong was very disappointing for me, I started paying more attention to cycling after he won his fifth Tour De France. Today I am a greater fan of horse racing and I don't like to see the sport tarnished. I hold six $2.00 win tickets that I have never cashed on American Pharoah at age three, and three of the tickets are triple crown winning tickets, so I do care what happens to Bob Baffert and his career.

May 10, 2021 - 7:03 pmThe entire horse racing

The entire horse racing industry needs to address the issue of thresholds regarding testing results in racing. A wonderful story has turned the media outlets into sling throwing accusations again for a declining sport that needs some positive news coverage. Horses need to be tested before they race not after and things like this would never happen. Most of the industries positive tests today result from medication in error OR outside contamination factors. As an industry, why are we not able to identify what levels produce performance enhancement in a race horse and what levels are so minuscule they equate to a grain of salt in a swimming pool? I find it troubling what the "public's perception" is of the horse racing industry. Sad really. I feel terrible for the parties involved and can only imagine how many of our lives and reputations may be defined by one critical decision. One moment. Let's all hope that this pending decision and the fallout coverage will not be the defining moment regarding this man and his successful career achievements, his family, and the owners involved with this wonderful race horse. The industry should be hopeful that these accusations and whispers will be unfounded and due to outside contamination and then"Medina Spirit's story could still be written.

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