The summer is well underway, the final Triple Crown race has been run, and another year has passed without a single horse winning all three contests. Three races, three victors – Essential Quality in the Belmont, Rombauer in the Preakness, and, of course, Medina Spirit in the Kentucky Derby. Maybe. Or maybe not.
Most people are probably aware that Medina Spirit tested positive for a small amount of betamethasone, a corticosteroid that is against the rules for a horse to have in its system during a race. His trainer, seven-time Derby winner Bob Baffert, has been suspended from racing in Kentucky for two years by the Racing Commission in that state, but as yet no decision has been made regarding the legitimacy of Medina Spirit’s Run for the Roses win or whether the Derby winner himself is going to be disqualified. Baffert has also been temporarily suspended from racing in New York. As a result, Baffert and his lawyers have taken both states’ racing commissions to court and are challenging the suspensions on different grounds.
Basically, Baffert’s lawyers are claiming that New York has no right to suspend him for actions that were outside of that state’s jurisdiction, saying that this means Baffert has not violated any of their rules. His case in Kentucky is very different and more complex, questioning the testing procedures that were used and saying that the drugs that showed up in Medina’s test were not performance enhancing and that the small amount found had no impact on his effort, in any event.
Ethical questions remain for the courts to decide. Should Medina Spirit be denied his victory if the drug found was not proven to enhance his win, or should the victory be taken away because the rules state that a horse cannot have ANY detectable amount of the drug in his system post-race? Does Bob Baffert, the winningest Derby trainer of all time, deserved to be punished above and beyond potentially having Medina Spirit’s victory nullified? Is it fair to punish Baffert for this Derby test since he, like many other trainers, has had other bad tests in the past? Should Baffert’s having had a bad test for a lower-level class C drug (these are drugs that are allowed to be administered to help horses recover from injury, but are not to be administered with 14-16 days of the actual race) be taken into consideration – in other words, does the fact that Medina Spirit wasn’t on a heavy performance enhancer like phenobarbital mitigate the situation? Did Baffert’s post-test statements that his never gave Medina the drug – statements that he later walked back, saying that betamethasone was an ingredient in a salve used on the horse the week of the Derby to cure a rash – hold water, or did they make Baffert’s guilt even more obvious?
People have strong opinions on both sides of this debate. Some feel that, since Baffert has been caught before for similar transgressions and only received small fines, which were largely perceived as slaps on the wrist, that he should now have the book thrown at him. This attitude stems from the assumption that he must have had other violations that were never detected and that these undiscovered violations played no small part in allowing him to be so successful. So when he was caught – if he indeed was – after that race on the first Saturday in May, it only verified those assumptions. Others feel that it makes no sense that he would intentionally cheat in America’s most prestigious race when he has already been so successful, and where a bad test in the most important race in America would severely damage his reputation in spite of his record – which, it should be noted, includes training both of the most recent Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah and Justify. Some believe Baffert’s in the crosshairs, with officials more or less out to get him due to his past behavior, and that jealousy is driving a lot of media attention and other trainers’ condemnations.
As a racing fan, all this makes me sad. Sad that the focus has been removed from these majestic animals that demonstrate such outstanding heart and courage when they run, and sad that horse racing has now become – or has been revealed to be – so litigious, and that every rule that is broken or decision that goes against someone is now subject to legal. Call me a romantic, I guess. Maybe it’s a sign of the times, or maybe I am just waxing nostalgic for a simpler time that may or may not have existed. Maybe my age is simply not allowing me to see the forest through the trees. But I long for horse racing to find solutions to these complicated questions, and I look forward to the implementation of the National Horse Racing Integrity Act in 2022, which will set national standards for racing all across the country.
For me, this Baffert issue reminds me of the UFO controversy, which has erupted back into the news recently. People who believe in the existence of other life forms besides our own point to these unidentified objects as proof of extraterrestrial life, while skeptics regard these objects as things that are simply unexplained and no proof of much of anything. In other words, the belief drives the interpretation of the evidence, and not vice versa. You may also know this as confirmation bias.
In our society today, I believe this reliance on finding one example to justify one’s beliefs, whether that example is factual or not – or even connected – is something that permeates much of our politics as well. Sadly, I remember a time when individuals justified racist feelings by saying things like, ” I work with one like that,” or used the behavior of one person as proof that destructive beliefs are true. I am afraid that these types of attitudes are damaging both our nation and our sports. Baseball is now examining pitchers as they walk off the mound to see if they are putting illegal substances on the baseball. This also makes me sad. Some pundits have already baselessly suggested that batting averages have gone down since these inspections have been taking place, with no direct proof that that is true (and even if it were, on some level, true at the moment, the policy has been in place for such a short period of time that there is nowhere near enough statistical evidence to come to a reasonable conclusion about the impact the ban has had.) I surmise that Major League Baseball is looking for a solution to an issue that has been in existence for years, but I fear their cure might be worse than their problem. Humiliating players as they walk off the mound, without any indication of wrongdoing, seems at odds with the sport of my youth.
Some people will cling to the belief that horse racing is fixed and that cheaters prevail at all levels. Others will continue to scan the midnight sky for aliens and other life forms, and still others will mentally downgrade the performances of MLB’s pitchers, suspecting that the baseball is still being doctored – and may come to think that pitching performances of the past are tainted, as well. And still others, of course distrust, if not outright hate, people who are different from themselves. (A Venn diagram of these four types would likely show some overlap, but you get my point.)
My fervent hope is that we, as both sports fans and citizens, continue to strive to be inclusive of other’s beliefs, and to remember to examine our own, hopefully in a world that values facts and truths. Maybe our current phase of cynicism will lessen or pass in time. I, for one, will try to avoid falling into this negative thinking. Hopefully, baseball headlines will soon again feature wonderful players making extraordinary plays, and I will be able to attend the 2022 Kentucky Derby knowing that racing has turned the corner and is back to the days of Secretariat and Seattle Slew, with the focus on the thrill of the race, not the decisions in the courtroom.