The same day Churchill Downs suspended Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert for two years and cited 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit’s second positive drug test, the chairperson of a new horse racing anti-doping authority underscored the need for a “uniform system” of rules, drug testing measures, and penalties given to violators, throughout the industry.
“We’ve got to have a system where it is the enforcement agency that is describing what happened, what the nature of the violation was, what the significance is, and what the penalties will be, subject to the due process afforded the alleged violator,” said Charlie Scheeler, the chair of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority’s (HISA) board of directors, which will go into effect on July 1, 2022. The HISA board will report to the Federal Trade Commission. “So I think those are areas in which we can bring some improvements to the table for both the persons involved, as well as the fandom and the betting public.”
Baffert’s reputation has come under fire ever since he announced May 9 that his horse, 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, had tested positive for the banned substance, betamethasone, a corticosteroid. Medina Spirit finished first in the May 1 Derby, but could be disqualified as a result of the positive drug test. Baffert, 68, at first blamed a “cancel culture” for the firestorm surrounding his announcement, but later did an about-face and divulged that Medina Spirit had been treated with an ointment, Otomax, which contains the banned betamethasone.
Medina Spirit ran in the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness, but finished in third place.
Baffert’s attorneys confirmed that a second sample from Medina Spirit tested positive for betamethasone. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission did not respond to an email for comment, but a KHRC spokesperson told the New York Times: ”The K.H.R.C. is not going to be providing comment or updates on the status of this ongoing investigation. We will provide information when the entire matter is complete.”
If Medina Spirit was disqualified from the Kentucky Derby, the colt’s owner, Amr Zedan, would lose the $1.8 million purse money earned after the Derby win. Dancer’s Image is the only other horse to be disqualified from the Kentucky Derby, in 1968, also for a doping violation.
“Reckless practices and substance violations that jeopardize the safety of our equine and human athletes or compromise the integrity of our sport are not acceptable,” Bill Carstanjen, chief executive of Churchill Downs, said in a statement. ”Mr. Baffert’s record of testing failures threatens public confidence in thoroughbred racing and the reputation of the Kentucky Derby.”
In addition to the Churchill Downs suspension, the New York Racing Association announced May 17 a temporary suspension of Baffert, including him being barred from entering any of his horses in races at Belmont Park, Saratoga Race Course and Aqueduct Racetrack.
“That suspension remains in effect and NYRA will make a determination regarding the length and terms of Mr. Baffert’s suspension at the appropriate time and based on information generated by the ongoing investigation in Kentucky,” said NYRA’s senior director of communications, Patrick McKenna.
That means that Saturday’s Belmont Stakes will not feature one of its most recognizable faces. Over the years, Baffert has walked the Belmont grounds, dressed in a sharp blazer and tie, conversing with fans and media alike. Two of Baffert’s horses won the Triple Crown in the last six years — American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018.
“Thank you for reaching out. I’m not doing interviews right now,” Baffert said in a text message Friday. “When time is right I will.”
Baffert’s attorney, W. Craig Robertson III, did not return a call for comment.
Hall of Fame jockeys Victor Espinoza and Mike Smith, who rode American Pharoah and Justify, respectively, both said in recent interviews that they support Baffert.
“I know (Baffert) as a human being, and I think the world of him,” said Smith.
The Baffert maelstrom spotlights what has been a decades-long doping problem in the sport. The creation of HISA comes only months after the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was passed into federal law in December. Scheeler told reporters that the HISA board has “a steep climb” ahead of it in the efforts to clean up the sport.
“It’s going to be the job of our organization to address those concerns to implement standards, rules, and enforcement mechanisms across the entire country, apply them uniformly, and try to make a sport which is safer, which is clean, and which is fair, both to those who we govern, in terms of due process, and also in terms of the public, in terms of the information made available to them about the sport and about how it’s being governed,” said Scheeler.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency will enforce the rules once HISA begins implementing regulations and policies next year.
Scheeler was one of former Sen. George Mitchell’s investigators when Mitchell conducted an 18-month investigation into Major League Baseball’s doping past and history. The Mitchell Report was released in December 2007, and listed dozens of major league players as steroid and performance-enhancing drug users, including pitchers Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. One recommendation Mitchell made in his report was the need for baseball to create an independent investigative unit to root out malfeasance in the game.
Scheeler said that similarly, one of HISA’s aims would be to “have a vigorous component to follow up on the rumors that you hear in the barn, or the syringe that’s found in the stall, or something along those lines.”
“Another piece that we want to add in a very powerful way is an investigative unit component to enforcement of anti-doping rules,” said Scheeler. “What you have to come up with is a comprehensive package that will significantly decrease (drug) usage, because some folks just look at it not as, ‘Should I play fair or not?’, but a very cold-blooded, cost-benefit situation. And we have to have them see that the costs, or the risks, are greater than the rewards.”