As if horse racing doesn’t have enough problems with pandemic, falling turnover and attacks from animal rightists, it must also grapple with doping scandals.
Last year, 27 Americans were arrested for their involvement in a doping network and racing in the US suffered massive damage to the brand. Last month, the first guilty individuals in this saga were jailed for 18 months and current speculation is that the highest-profile accused, trainer Jason Servis, will go down for a minimum of five years.
All good. There was a crackdown, the crooks didn’t get away with it, bad apples were chucked out.
But then came news that US Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert had found himself in the middle of a doping furore. One doesn’t get much more successful and famous in world racing than silver-haired Bob. And the horse that tested positive was Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, no less.
Then came a media release for South Africa’s National Horseracing Authority concerning a court order involving this country’s most famous horseman, trainer Mike de Kock.
The release said: “The effect of the order is that the NHA will make available to Mr de Kock’s analyst portions of urine specimens taken on two occasions, namely 28 November 2020 and 12 December 2020, from the horse Queen Supreme, which specimens the NHA has alleged have tested positive for caffeine and have subsequently been confirmed, containing such by the nominated reference laboratory.”
This is the latest episode in a long-running saga involving positive NHA caffeine tests from several horses, across at least 10 racing stables, and a possible connection to horse feed manufacturers.
It’s all sub-judice, so we’ll keep our counsel – other than to say that positive dope tests in the past have been traced back to many an unlikely and unwitting source.
But we can look at the Baffert case – and avoid leaping to conclusions about racing being rotten from top to bottom.
Medina Spirit tested positive test for betamethasone, a corticosteroid, after his 2021 Kentucky Derby triumph at Churchill Downs. Betamethasone, primarily administered to horses in joint injections, is a Class C drug allowed in Kentucky as a therapeutic, but state rules require at least a 14-day withdrawal time before racing and any level of detection on race day is a violation.
Baffert said he was baffled, he hadn’t injected the horse, and launched an in-depth investigation in his stable. He reported back that the betamethasone is likely to have come from an ointment used on the colt for dermatitis on his rear end.
According to Baffert, his staff had been treating Medina Spirit with Otomax, an antifungal ointment, for several weeks, on the suggestion of his veterinarian.
This does have a ring of truth about it as the positive sample showed a minute 21 picograms of betamethasone present. A picogram is a trillionth of a gram.
(Part of the argument about caffeine in horses’ blood is about the bar being set very high by racing authorities – way higher than for levels in human athletes at the Olympics, for example.)
In his statement, Baffert said: “I have been told that a finding of a small amount, such as 21 picograms, could be consistent with the application of this type of ointment. I intend to continue to investigate and I will continue to be transparent.
“In the meantime, I want to reiterate two points … First, I had no knowledge of how betamethasone could have possibly found its way into Medina Spirit (until now) and this has never been a case of attempting to game the system or get an unfair advantage.
“Second, horseracing must address its regulatory problem when it comes to substances which can innocuously find their way into a horse’s system at the picogram level.
“Medina Spirit earned his Kentucky Derby win and my pharmacologists have told me that 21 picograms of betamethasone would have had no effect on the outcome of the race. Medina Spirit is a deserved champion and I will continue to fight for him.”
If Baffert loses the fight and Medina Spirit’s follow-up split-sample test confirms the presence of betamethasone, Kentucky rules authorise disqualification of the horse and penalties for the trainer.
Disqualification would mean Mandaloun, who finished half a length behind Medina Spirit, being declared the winner of the Kentucky Derby.
Meanwhile, a number of US racing jurisdictions have temporarily suspended Baffert’s training licence, including New York, where the third leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, is held in a couple of weeks’ time.
Baffert was allowed to race Medina Spirit in the Triple Crown second leg, the Preakness at Pimlico, last week. He finished third behind Rombauer, dashing Baffert’s hopes for a third Triple Crown – following those of American Pharoah and Justify in the past decade.
Doping is a horrific blight on racing and nailing the likes of the recent cobalt dopers in Australia is to be welcomed. Inevitably, strict policing exposes a foul underbelly and risks besmirching the name of the game. But, as the likes of Baffert and De Kock point out, things have to be as clean as a whistle if racing is to have a future in an often hostile world.
However, as they also emphasise, chemicals “innocuously” entering the system of horses should perhaps be handled with greater understanding and sensitivity than is currently the case.
It wasn’t so long ago that a cluster of positive dope tests on horses in the UK was traced to a stable hand, who was taking medication, peeing in and around the horse boxes.