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Medina Spirit, the surprise winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby until he was stripped of the title, pending an investigation for alleged doping, has died after suffering an apparent heart attack at the Santa Anita racetrack in California.
The colt was owned by Saudi Arabian Amr Zedan Racing Stables and trained by the legendary, but controversial, Bob Baffert, who has had six confirmed Kentucky Derby wins and several brushes with US horse racing authorities over alleged doping abuse.
Medina Spirit, an unfancied 12-1 outsider, won the 147th derby–traditionally held on the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs in Louisville–before a reduced crowd of 50,000 racegoers this year.
Often called “the greatest two minutes in sports”, the one-and-a-half-mile Kentucky Derby has a US$3 million purse (£2.27m/€2.65m), with the winner receiving US$1.86 million (£1.4m/€1.64m), and generates a betting handle in excess of US$300 million over its associated racing program (£227m/€265m).
Medina Spirit failed a post-race drugs test, testing positive for Betamethasone, a corticosteroid.
Initially, Baffert denied the three-year-old had ever been given the drug and blamed the situation, somewhat incongruously, on so-called “cancel culture”.
He then conceded that the colt had indeed been administered a topical ointment, containing the substance, to treat a rash.
The investigation into the alleged doping is ongoing.
If Medina Spirit is indeed disqualified posthumously, the 2021 Kentucky Derby title will go to Mandaloun, who placed second by half-a-length. If Medina Spirit’s victory is upheld, it will be Baffert’s seventh Kentucky Derby win — and the fourth for his jockey John Velazquez.
During his all-too-brief career, Medina Spirit had five wins, four seconds and a third from 10 starts, earning over US$3.5 million in prize money (£2.65m/€3.1m).
After this year’s race the New York Racing Association banned Baffert from entering Medina Spirit–or any of his other charges–in horse races in their state.
Churchill Downs, the eponymous company that own the Louisville racetrack, have also blocked Baffert from racing horses in the next two Kentucky Derby meets.
Racing Hall-of-Famer Baffert is no stranger to doping controversies.
In 2018 he trained Triple Crown winner Justify, who tested positive for Scopolamine after winning the Santa Anita Derby that year.
But the case was dropped when the California Horse Racing Board ruled the positive test was caused by accidental feed contamination.
A Great Champion
Thoroughbred Medina Spirit collapsed after a training run at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, near Los Angeles, on Monday (December 6).
“[He] was a great champion, a member of our family who was loved by all and we are deeply mourning his loss,” Baffert said in a statement released by his lawyers.
“I will always cherish the proud and personal memories of Medina Spirit and his tremendous spirit.”
California Horse Racing Board Medical Director Dr. Jeff Blea said: “We’re not going to speculate on what caused [Medina Spirit’s collapse]. We presume it’s cardiovascular.
“He’ll undergo a full necropsy, which includes toxicology and forensics, and we’ll see if we can identify the cause of the death. Unfortunately, with these sudden deaths, they’re often undiagnosed because they’re often difficult to find.”
Medina Spirit’s untimely death has refocused scrutiny on safety in American horse racing.
The US federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which sets up a unified and independent authority to oversee horse racing rules, medication and drug testing, takes effect in July next year.
From all indications few could argue that the act is not long overdue.