Kentucky Derby Winner Medina Spirit Fails Drug Test, Creating Multiple Crises

How is Legendary Racehorse Trainer Bob Baffert Doing in Defending His Reputation?

5/10/21 – – Bob Baffert is the most recognizable human face of thoroughbred horse racing. His signature full head of white hair is famous. The high-profile trainer has found his way into the winner’s circles of Triple Crown races 17 times, his latest triumph coming two weeks ago at the Kentucky Derby. Unfortunately, a ruling by Churchill Downs over the weekend has placed that victory and Baffert’s extraordinary career under a cloud.

An after-race drug test of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, trained by Baffert, found twice the allowable amount of the steroid betamethasone. Pending the testing of a split sample of Medina Spirit’s blood, Churchill Downs suspended Baffert and announced the likely invalidation of the horse’s first-place finish (that would give the victory and top prize money to second-place Mandaloun).

Baffert has challenged the accuracy of the failed drug test, vowing to fight the charges “tooth and nail.” Things are moving fast and pressure is building. Medina Spirit is on his way to Baltimore to race in this weekend’s Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown. The Maryland Jockey Club, sponsors of the Preakness, have yet to make a final decision regarding Medina Spirit’s eligibility. It’s a difficult call, with the second blood test unlikely to be completed prior to race time.

What a mess. Baffert, the Maryland Jockey Club and the thoroughbred horse racing industry are all facing reputational crises. How does Baffert defend his reputation? How does the Preakness make a decision —quickly — based on fairness and safety? And how does the racing industry maintain some level of credibility and public trust as this story unfolds with unpredictable twists and turns?

Let’s focus on Baffert. How’s he doing? Is he getting good crisis counseling advice?

That depends on the truth.

In Chapter 11 (“Determining Guilt or Innocence”) of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient, we discuss the importance of determining your guilt or innocence before setting your crisis response strategy. Facts matter. How you answer charges against you depends on the accuracy of the charges.   

Before someone facing a crisis can say or do much of anything, they have to figure out if they should proceed in one of three modes: “Hold your fire,”  “Okay, we did it,” or “We didn’t do it.”

Clearly, Baffert is operating in full “we didn’t do it” mode. His denials are unconditional: “I got the biggest gut-punch in racing, for something I didn’t do . . . There’s a problem in racing, but it’s not Bob Baffert.” Saying that Medina Spirit has never been treated with the drug in question, Baffert is not considering withdrawing the horse from the Preakness, threatening a restraining order if the Maryland Jockey Club denies his horse a position in the starting gates.

If all that’s true, he’s doing well, not giving an inch, taking all interview requests and defending his honor.

Muddying the waters, however, is a report in The New York Times that Baffert-trained horses have failed “at least 29 drug tests in his four-decade career.” In fact, Medina Spirit is the fifth of Baffert’s horses to fail a drug test in the last year. And cynical sports writers are piling on. Here’s a typical take by Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde:  

“Nobody hits 73 home runs in a season without assistance. Nobody wins five straight Tours de France. And in a sport like horse racing . . . maybe it’s simply too much to expect a guy to win a record seven Derbies between 1997–2021 without beating other cheaters at their own game.”

It will be fascinating to see how this all turns out. The ball right now is in the Maryland Jockey Club’s court. And if Medina Spirit is allowed to run, TV ratings will be through the roof. Add to that a Preakness victory and you have the makings of one of the greatest stories ever told!

Will the final chapter include Bob Baffert’s redemption?

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