Medina Spirit, the “bargain basement” winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby has failed a drug test confirming fears of widespread doping in US horse racing.
The colt, sold as a yearling for only US$1,000, was an unexpected winner of America’s most famous race, which is traditionally run at the Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville on the first Saturday of every May.
The drug found in Medina Spirit’s system was betamethasone, a corticosteroid injected into joints to reduce pain and swelling.
In a scrambled news conference at the weekend, the horse’s controversial hall-of-fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has been linked to doping on numerous occasions, vehemently denied wrongdoing.
“I was totally shocked when I heard this news,” said Baffert. “I am the most scrutinized trainer. The last thing I want to do is something that would jeopardize the greatest sport. I’m worried about the sport. This is a pretty serious accusation. We’re going to get to the bottom of it. We didn’t do it. There is a problem in racing. But it’s not Bob Baffert.”
If a second sample confirms positive, Medina Spirit will be stripped of the prestigious Kentucky Derby title and its winning purse of US$1.86 million (£1.31m/€1.52m).
The colt will become only the third horse in the 147-year history of the race—dubbed “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports”–to receive such a penalty after finishing first.
Horse racing in the United States has a long and ignoble culture of doping and slack regulation. For example, compared to most other top horse racing countries, it has a far higher rate of horses breaking down and being euthanized.
Indeed, after decades of opposition and obfuscation by most of the 38 states where horse racing is legal, but independently monitored, the United States has finally passed national legislation to regulate the sport.
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act–with penalties to be enforced by the United States Anti-Doping Agency; the same watchdog that nailed drugs-cheat cyclist Lance Armstrong–will take effect on July 1 next year.
Churchill Downs has now suspended Baffert from racing other horses at the track.
Medina Spirit’s tainted May 1 victory was the seventh time that Baffert has won America’s most prestigious horse race, run since 1875 on a dirt track of one and a quarter miles.
In April banned substances were found in two of Baffert’s horses racing in Arkansas. And last year another one of his horses, Gamine, was disqualified for doping after finishing third in the Kentucky Oaks. Over four decades, 30 of the horses trained by Baffert have failed drug tests.
The New York-based Jockey Club, gatekeepers of the American stud and thoroughbred book, said it was “troubled” by the report about Medina Spirit.
“Bettors and fans need to have unshakable confidence in the integrity of the sport,” the club said in a statement.
Meantime, despite the doping controversy, it’s been reported that Kentucky Derby punters who backed Medina Spirit will be allowed to keep their winnings.