Baffert in spotlight for wrong reasons going into Preakness

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BALTIMORE (AP) Even though Bob Baffert isn’t at Pimlico Race Course this week, his shadow hangs over the Preakness, the Triple Crown and horse racing.

This should have been another celebration of Baffert, the face of the sport with two Triple Crown triumphs on his resume, coming off an upset win at the Kentucky Derby and looking for a record eighth Preakness victory. Instead, Derby winner Medina Spirit failing a postrace drug test for the steroid betamethasone has put Baffert and the sport in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

“The whole atmosphere here has changed,” rival trainer and friend D. Wayne Lukas said Wednesday. “The enthusiasm, the feel of excitement is not here. That’s what’s bad for the industry right there.”

Lukas tried to talk Baffert into traveling to Baltimore for the Preakness to saddle Medina Spirit and Concert Tour. Instead, Baffert’s horses are under the watchful eye of assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes and Maryland Racing Commission officials who set conditions for additional testing and monitoring for them to be allowed to run Saturday.

If three rounds of testing come back clean, Medina Spirit will likely be favored in the Preakness and, if successful, would be two-thirds of the way to Baffert’s third Triple Crown in six years – albeit with a giant asterisk.

“It certainly has altered the dynamic of the Preakness considerably,” NBC Sports analyst Randy Moss said. “It’s gone from a warm and fuzzy, feel-good story about a tenacious $1,000 yearling who somehow defied the odds to win the Kentucky Derby into the depths of where no one in horse racing likes to see it go.”

Rather than Baffert holding court outside the stakes barn at Pimlico in his trademark sunglasses and chatting with Lukas, it was Barnes tersely ending a short interview session after “no comment” replies when asked about his boss’s mindset and whether Medina Spirit was still being treated for a skin condition, which caused the horse to be given an antifungal ointment that Baffert said Tuesday was a possible source of the steroid.

Plenty of others, however, want to talk about the medication violation, Baffert’s fifth in a little over a year.

Activist Marty Irby of Animal Wellness Action said, “Baffert should be extraordinarily alert to all substances that go into horses under his control” and recommended a zero-tolerance policy for drugging violations.

While this is not intentional doping with performance-enhancing drugs like the charges facing indicted trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro, it’s another blotch on Baffert’s record that in a best-case scenario shows his barn doesn’t pay close enough attention to the medications being given to top-notch racehorses.

“The fact that he didn’t know and he didn’t mean for it to be in the horse, that doesn’t change for an instant the fact that it was in the horse,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, executive director of the Racing Medication & Testing Consortium. “The fact that he didn’t mean to break the rule doesn’t mean that he didn’t break a rule.”

Betamethasone, a therapeutic drug that can help horses’ joints, was also found in Baffert’s 2020 Kentucky Oaks-winning filly Gamine, who along with colt Charlatan tested positive for the painkiller lidocaine last year in Arkansas. Another Baffert-trained horse, Merneith, tested positive for a cough suppressant after racing July 25 at Del Mar in California.

Baffert in November vowed to “do better,” hiring a veterinarian for extra oversight and saying, “I intend to do everything possible to ensure I receive no further medication complaints.”

Then one happened on horse racing’s biggest stage.

“Somehow, here we are again,” Moss said. “A lot of people in racing are sort of scratching their heads as to why this would repeatedly happen to one guy.”

Lukas said Baffert has “been hit with some circumstances that are uncontrollable.” While Irby and others point to the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act that goes into effect in July 2022 as an opportunity to better police drugs in horses, the 85-year-old Hall of Fame trainer thinks it should raise the threshold “to what’s realistic” for therapeutic medications above the 21 picograms Medina Spirit tested positive for.

Baffert has repeatedly emphasized that a picogram is a trillionth of one gram to explain how little of the substance was discovered in the test, saying, “Horse racing 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.”

Regardless of the amount, Medina Spirit will be disqualified from the Kentucky Derby if a second test also comes back positive. And if anything shows up in Maryland’s additional testing, Medina Spirit will be scratched from the Preakness.

None of it is what Baffert and those in horse racing want to be worried about at the time of year when the sport gets the most attention. Perhaps that’s why Lukas wishes he was still on the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission that will decide the fate of Baffert and his latest champion.

“I would absolutely today tell my colleagues that we need to just dismiss this, throw it out, put the Derby winner back on the throne and move on,” he said. “You almost think the lab should probably have poured it down the sink in the first place.”

Flightline, Pletcher, Godolphin lead way at Eclipse Awards

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PALM BEACH, Fla. — Flightline ran away in all six of his races, and ran away with top honors at the Eclipse Awards on Thursday night.

And trainer Todd Pletcher, for the first time in nearly a decade, received the sport’s top prize as well.

Flightline – the now-retired winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap an unbeaten six-race career – won Horse of the Year as well as the Eclipse as top Older Dirt Male. It was no surprise that Flightline took home both awards, and he’s now standing stud.

“We’ll hope that his future is as bright as his past,” co-owner Kosta Hronis said.

Godolphin was also a double winner, sweeping the Eclipses as top owner and top breeder for the second consecutive year. It was also the third consecutive top-owner Eclipse for Godolphin.

“This is truly a golden era for Godolphin racing,” said Michael Banahan, the stable’s director of bloodstock. “And these awards and accolades recognize how special it is.”

It was Pletcher’s eighth Eclipse, extending his record for the most by any trainer, and his first since 2014. It was one of the few close races in the voting; Pletcher got 108 first-place votes, while four-time Eclipse winner Chad Brown got 95 and finished second.

“This really is not an individual award. This is a team award,” Pletcher said. “This is an award about the owners, and most importantly, the horses.”

Irad Ortiz Jr. won the Eclipse as top jockey for the fourth time in the last five years; he tied Pat Day and Javier Castellano for third-most in history, behind only seven-time winner Jerry Bailey and five-time winner Laffit Pincay Jr.

Ortiz led all jockeys with more than $37 million in purses in 2022.

“Wow,” Ortiz said. “It’s been an amazing year for me.”

Forte won the Eclipse as 2-year-old male, and will enter this year’s Triple Crown season as one of the early favorites.

“We’re all in this game for a horse like Forte,” said Mike Repole, the horse’s co-owner along with Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola and Teresa Viola. “We’re all in this game to one day maybe own a 2-year-old that has a chance. It’s great to have the Kentucky Derby favorite. … Forte’s an incredible horse.”

Epicenter won the 3-year-old male Eclipse, after running second at both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, then winning the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga over the summer.

Wonder Wheel was the winner as 2-year-old filly, while Nest won the Eclipse in the 3-year-old filly division. Malathaat was the Eclipse winner for older dirt female, Goodnight Olive for female sprinter and Regal Glory for female turf horse.

Elite Power was picked as the top male sprinter, Modern Games won the Eclipse for male turf horse, and Hewick was the Eclipse winner in the steeplechase division.

Jose Antonio Gomez won as top apprentice jockey.

The Eclipse Awards are voted on by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers And Broadcasters.

Trainer Bob Baffert’s ban from racing in New York is over

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Bob Baffert can once again enter horses at New York’s major tracks.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s one-year ban by the New York Racing Association ended Wednesday, allowing him to enter horses as soon as Thursday.

“I was disappointed they even did it, but it’s water under the bridge,” Baffert told The Associated Press by phone.

He was suspended last June for repeated medication violations, although none of them occurred in New York. He was barred from Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. A panel credited Baffert for time served for an initial suspension, which allowed him to return this week.

Aqueduct is currently holding its 44-day winter meet that runs through March 26. Baffert doesn’t typically run horses this time of year in New York; he targets the biggest stakes races at Belmont in the spring and Saratoga in the summer.

Baffert remains under a two-year ban by Churchill Downs Inc., which sidelined him after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a substance that is not allowed on race day. The penalty expires shortly after the Kentucky Derby in May. However, Baffert is fighting the suspension in federal court.

The Southern California-based trainer has a big weekend coming up around the country, although not in New York.

He has horses running at three tracks on Saturday.

Defunded is entered in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in Florida, where Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes will be on hand.

Arabian Knight goes into the $750,000 Southwest Stakes as the early favorite at Oaklawn in Arkansas. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby prep race a record-tying five times and will travel to Hot Springs to watch the 3-year-old colt.

“It’s going to be a good test for him. The only way to find out is to run him long,” he said. “It’s going to take a superior horse to do that and I’m hoping that he is.”

The Southwest offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top five finishers. Arabian Knight won’t receive any points regardless of his placing because of Baffert’s Derby ban.

Hopper will run in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

On Sunday at the same track, Baffert has entered four of the five horses set to run in the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes for 3-year-olds.