A day after blaming “cancel culture” for his Churchill Downs suspension and for news that Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for 21 picograms of betamethasone, famed trainer Bob Baffert on Tuesday acknowledged his horse had been treated by Otomax, an anti-fungal ointment that contains betamethasone. Baffert made the admission through a written statement distributed by his attorney.
Baffert, who as of late yesterday forcefully denied Medina Spirit was given betamethasone, insists he learned of the dermatitis-treating ointment’s application through an internal investigation. Still vowing that Medina Spirit “earned his Kentucky Derby win,” Baffert cautions it remains undetermined if the ointment is responsible for all or even some of the betamethasone reportedly identified in the blood test. However, any amount of betamethasone would trigger a violation, Dr. Mary Scollay, executive director of the Kentucky-based Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, told Horse Racing Nation on Sunday. Previously, there was a threshold limit of 10 picograms, but the threshold was removed last fall.
This development dramatically reshapes Baffert’s options for challenging his suspension and for countering any adverse actions taken against Medina Spirit.
On Sunday, Churchill Downs announced if a second sample confirms the first’s findings, Medina Spirit would be stripped of the victory (and the right to collect a $1.86 million purse). Runner-up Mandaloun would then be declared the winner. It’s unclear if the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission will punish Baffert for training a horse that (it seems) was in violation of the rules. Those rules are designed to protect the safety of other horses and jockeys and to uphold the integrity of the race. Betting, of course, generates substantial consumer interest in horse racing—if races suffered from the unpredictability of “cheating,” bettors could become less inclined to wager on races, thereby damaging the sport’s economic value.
Baffert’s statement attempts to portray himself as innocent, arguably even a victim. He adamantly declares, “I had no knowledge” of betamethasone being used and insists “this has never been a case of attempting to game the system or get an unfair advantage.” Baffert also criticizes the larger system. “Horse racing,” Baffert maintains, “must address its regulatory problem when it comes to substances which can innocuously find their way into a horse’s system at the picogram (which is a trillionth of a gram) level . . . my pharmacologists have told me that 21 picograms of betamethasone would have had no effect on the outcome of the race.”
The going-forward problem for Baffert is three-fold. First, drug testing in horse racing and other sports is a largely a strict liability system. This means it doesn’t matter if a trainer “intends” to engage in wrongdoing. What matters is whether the wrongdoing occurs. Second, the 68-year-old Baffert has been a trainer for decades. His job performance is undermined if he’s unaware of ingredients used in medicines to treat his horse. Third, Baffert might have valid points about appropriate threshold levels and the competitive impact of 21 picograms of betamethasone, but those are arguably red herrings: Baffert and others connected to Medina Spirit agreed to play by the rules of the race. Perhaps the rules should change, but that’s for another time.
(This story has been updated in the second paragraph with news of Medina Spirit’s official entry in the Preakness.)