The Smoke Surrounding Bob Baffert
Seven-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert has had multiple horses in his barn test positive for banned substances over the years. Is Baffert the world’s unluckiest man or is something more insidious at play?
The ending of the 2021 Kentucky Derby was as intense as any in recent history. Medina Spirit, the overlooked colt who had been sold as a yearling for only a thousand dollars, held the lead nearly the entire race and was in the fight of his life trying to hold onto it as the 19-horse field turned for home.
Medina Spirit fended off challenges from three horses on his outside ridden by jockeys determined to etch their names into horse racing history. Jockey John Velazquez and Medina Spirit fought tooth and nail to hold onto the narrowest of narrow leads, and as the four horses got closer and closer to the wire it seemed that one of the three would pass the Bob Baffert trained colt.
None did, and Medina Spirit held on to win the Kentucky Derby by a half-length. While the horse’s valiant effort and incredible victory were applauded, his victory was quickly overshadowed by what it meant for his Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
Medina Spirit’s win was supposed to be the next chapter of Baffert’s epic comeback story after years of frustration. Baffert, who had burst onto the horse racing scene winning three Kentucky Derbys in five years starting in 1997, had seemingly lost his magic touch for winning the biggest race after 2002.
Despite still being a top-flight trainer in horse racing, Baffert suffered several heart-wrenching defeats and personal setbacks.
Baffert’s horse Pioneer of the Nile lost the 2009 Derby to a horse that had come up from dead last to win. His horse Bodemeister, bearing his son’s name, lost the 2012 Kentucky Derby after leading by five lengths at the final turn, and Baffert suffered a heart attack in Dubai in 2011.
But Baffert found the magic touch again, and Medina Spirit’s win was his fourth Derby-winning horse since 2015, including two horses who would go on to win the Triple Crown, a feat not seen since 1978 and the most prestigious prize in horse racing. As the New York Times wrote, Baffert had become synonymous with the Derby and was arguably one of the greatest trainers of all time.
However, as famed author Chinua Achebe once wrote, things fell apart.
On May 9 Medina Spirit tested positive for the banned corticosteroid betamethasone eight days after winning the Derby, and the response was swift. The New York Racing Authority, “temporarily banned” Baffert from entering horses in races.
Baffert released a statement claiming the positive test was due to a cream used to treat dermatitis in Medina Spirit’s hind leg, and on May 10 Baffert and Medina Spirit’s owner Amr Zedan sought a court injunction to test all of Medina Spirit’s urine samples to prove that the horse was not injected with betamethasone. Baffert has also sued the New York Racing Association after the NYRA suspended him.
Baffert has also cried foul to the media, stating that he had not intentionally given his horse a banned substance and declaring that his horse was a victim of cancel culture run amuck in a Fox News interview.
Despite the positive test, Medina Spirit was allowed to run in the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown series, only after Baffert agreed to additional drug testing for the 2021 Derby winner. However, Medina Spirit ultimately fell short of victory to another underdog despite the shorter race and smaller field.
Baffert would soon be faced with problems worse than losing a Grade I stakes race. A second test of Medina Spirit’s urine sample would also return a positive result for the same banned substance. Baffert was promptly suspended by Churchill Downs for two years and Medina Spirit might be the third horse in Derby history who crossed the finish line first to be disqualified.
The backlash to Medina Spirit’s positive test has been swift and harsh. SNL lampooned Baffert as a creepy grifter and called him shady. The former assistant city editor of the Kansas City Star and blogger Jim Fitzpatrick was even more vicious, calling Baffert a “turd”, mentioning accusations that Baffert was an unfaithful spouse, and seemingly took joy in Baffert’s misfortune.
“He’s (Baffert) a cheat and an asshole,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “I hope Medina Spirit gets taken down and his connections are denied the $1.8 million first-place check.”
Even people within the horseracing industry are mad at Baffert and are jumping on the bandwagon.
According to the Courier-Journal, notoriously combative racehorse owner Jerry Jamgotchian attempted to register a horse with the name “Bad Test Bob” with The Jockey Club but the organization rejected it. Jamgotchian claimed he was prepared to spend 100,000 dollars to name the horse Bad Test Bob and claimed that the dig at Baffert was his way of irking the trainer.
The insulting sketches on late-night television, retired journalists spouting obscenities on their blog, and a racehorse owner who is ready to spend six figures to name an animal after you to impugn your character are all because of one thing. Many believe Baffert is a cheater, and many believe that he has gotten away with it for too long.
However, one could argue Baffert is innocent and that there is no raging fire. Is Baffert a serial cheater, unlucky, or careless? It’s hard to know for sure.
Baffert’s history of positive tests does point to a man willing to go to any length to win. According to the New York Times, Baffert-trained horses have failed 30 drug tests over the last 40 years. In 2001, a Baffert-trained horse tested positive for morphine post-race, and he was suspended for 60 days by the California Horse Racing Commission. However, the growing consensus that Baffert is a habitual cheater began in 2019.
The New York Times revealed that Baffert’s horse Justify tested positive for the banned drug Scopolamine after winning the 2018 Santa Anita Derby.
Justify’s win was never taken down, despite positive drug tests usually resulting in a disqualification, the test result was not made public, and Justify would go on to win the 2018 Kentucky Derby and later the Triple Crown.
The scandal was made worse because Chuck Winner, the Chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, which oversees Santa Anita Park, had an ownership stake in some Baffert-trained horses, and some saw the nondisclosure and conflict of interest as part of a cover-up.
However, Baffert claimed the positive test was due to contaminated feed, and the CHRB ultimately ruled that was indeed the case. Despite this, Baffert’s horses kept testing positive.
In 2020 three Baffert-trained horses also tested positive for banned substances. One horse named Gamine tested positive twice in one year for betamethasone and a numbing agent called lidocaine, which is often used as a masking agent for other drugs. Baffert was fined and suspended for the positive tests.
Baffert again denied intentionally doping his horses, insisting one of his assistant’s pain medication had accidentally exposed the horses to the banned substance. Regardless of Baffert’s explanations, the suspicion surrounding him also stems from the suspicious deaths of several of the horses he has trained.
A Washington Post investigation found that 74 Baffert horses had died since 2000 and that Baffert had the largest death per 1,000 start rate of any trainer in California. Additionally, seven horses Baffert trained died from 2011 to 2013, and all seven were on the same legal thyroid medication. While Baffert was absolved of guilt by the CHRB, the official report of the cluster of deaths said the probability of such an event occurring was .001 percent and concluded that “There’s something wrong here.”
However, one could argue that perception isn’t always reality, and Baffert’s possible tests could still be —as he claims— the result of contamination, overly sensitive tests, and accidental exposure from non-performance-related medications. There are precedents of Baffert’s claims of accidentally testing positive in other sports.
According to Scientific American, in 2018 over 750 supplement brands were found to be laced with drugs and undisclosed ingredients, and tainted supplements have wreaked havoc on sports in recent years.
In 2015 former UFC middleweight contender Yoel Romero tested positive for a banned substance, but Romero was not suspended after it was discovered he had accidentally consumed the banned substance from a tainted supplement.
In 2016 UFC Lightheavyweight champion Jon Jones tested positive for two banned substances and was suspended from competition for one year after allegedly consuming tainted male enhancement pills. Jones would again be suspended by the UFC after failing another drug test in 2018 due to accidentally taking another tainted supplement.
Fellow horse trainers have also accidentally had their thoroughbreds test positive after exposing them to contaminated products. Two-time Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neil was suspended by the CHRB for 10 days after one of his horses tested positive for lidocaine.
O’Neil, who also has an extensive rap sheet of failed drug tests, said the positive test was due to environmental contamination.
Athletes in other sports have also tested positive for banned substances after consuming them in their food. In 2018, the Mexican world champion boxer Saul “Canelo” Alvarez tested positive for the banned substance clenbuterol. Clenbuterol is commonly used in the Mexican livestock industry, has caused many false positives in Mexican boxers over the years, and the WBC ultimately had to raise the acceptable threshold for a positive test.
In theory, Baffert’s argument that his horses accidentally were exposed to banned substances is plausible, and it is possible that bad luck and carelessness could account for all 30 of Baffert’s failed tests.
However, the issue of whether Baffert is a serial cheater or a careless trainer has been swept aside by the growing reckoning over rampant undetected drug use in horse racing.
Twenty-five trainers and veterinarians, including prominent trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis, were indicted in connection with a drug ring to dope racehorses, which led to several horses’ deaths in 2020. The scandal ultimately led to the passage of the Horse Racing and Safety Act, which seeks to standardize rules around medication and prevent doping.
Baffert was not implicated in the scandal, but Medina Spirit’s positive test has made Baffert the avatar of racing’s doping problem. And while it remains to be seen what will happen to Baffert and Medina Spirit, it’s clear that some won’t wait to find out. With the smoke following Baffert, no matter where he goes, horse racing officials will continue to look for a fire.