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.”

Preakness winner National Treasure has final workout for Belmont Stakes

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — Preakness winner National Treasure breezed five furlongs in his final workout for the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes this weekend.

Working on the main track at Belmont Park with exercise rider Erick Garcia aboard, National Treasure was timed in 59.55 seconds and galloped out six furlongs in 1:11.20 and seven furlongs in 1:25.20. It was the second workout on the track for the Bob Baffert-trained colt.

“He worked very well this morning,” said Jimmy Barnes, Baffert’s top assistant. “It’s a big track and you can find yourself lost out there. Erick did an excellent job working him and now we’re just waiting for the race.”

National Treasure was fourth in the Santa Anita Derby before the Preakness on May 20.

Trainer Steve Asmussen’s Red Route One also posted his final work for the final jewel of the Triple Crown, breezing a half-mile in 50.20 seconds over Belmont Park’s dirt training track.

“I thought he went beautiful,” said Toby Sheets, Asmussen’s Belmont-based assistant. “It was nice and fluid and he came back with good energy. I’m very happy with him. We wanted to be out on the track before it got really busy.”

Red Route One finished fourth in the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course, almost five lengths behind National Treasure.

Kentucky Derby winner Mage is not running in the Belmont Stakes.

Churchill Downs moves meet to Ellis Park to examine protocols following 12 horse deaths

churchill downs
Michael Clevenger and Erik Mohn/USA TODAY NETWORK

Churchill Downs will suspend racing and move the remainder of its spring meet to Ellis Park in order to conduct a “top-to-bottom” review of safety and surface protocols in the wake of 12 horse fatalities the past month at the home of the Kentucky Derby.

No single factor has been identified as a potential cause for the fatalities or pattern detected, according to a release, but the decision was made to relocate the meet “in an abundance of caution.”

“What has happened at our track is deeply upsetting and absolutely unacceptable,” Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen said in Friday’s release. “We need to take more time to conduct a top-to-bottom review of all of the details and circumstances so that we can further strengthen our surface, safety and integrity protocols.”

Racing will continue at Churchill Downs through Sunday before shifting to the CDI-owned racing and gaming facility in Henderson, Kentucky. Ellis Park’s meet was scheduled to start July 7 and run through Aug. 27 but will now expand with Friday’s announcement.

Ellis Park will resume racing on June 10.

The move comes a day after track superintendent Dennis Moore conducted a second independent analysis of Churchill Downs’ racing and training surfaces as part of an emergency summit called this week by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) with the track and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Meetings took place in Lexington, Kentucky, and at the Louisville track.

The head of the federally created oversight agency suggested ahead of the summit that it could recommend pausing the meet and that Churchill Downs would accept that recommendation.

Churchill Downs’ release stated that expert testing raised no concerns and concluded that the surface was consistent with the track’s prior measurements. Even so, it chose to relocate “in alignment” with HISA’s recommendation to suspend the meet to allow more time for additional investigation.

“We appreciate their thoughtfulness and cooperation through these challenging moments,” HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said in a statement. “We will continue to seek answers and work with everyone involved to ensure that horses are running safely at Churchill Downs again in the near future.”

Carstanjen insisted that relocating the remainder of the spring meet to Ellis Park would maintain the industry ecosystem with minor disruption. He also said he was grateful to Kentucky horsemen for their support as they work to find answers.

Rick Hiles, the president of Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, questioned the move, especially since there’s no conclusive evidence that Churchill Downs’ surface is the problem.

“We all want to find solutions that will improve safety for horses,” Hiles said in a statement. “However, we need to discuss allowing trainers and veterinarians to use therapeutic medications that greatly lessen the risk of breakdowns.

“Drastic steps, such as relocating an active race meet, should only be considered when it is certain to make a difference.”

The latest development comes a day after Churchill Downs and HISA each implemented safety and performance standards to address the spate of deaths.

HISA will conduct additional post-entry screening of horses to identify those at increased risk for injury. Its Integrity and Welfare Unit also will collect blood and hair samples for all fatalities for use while investigating a cause.

Churchill Downs announced it would immediately limit horses to four starts during a rolling eight-week period and impose ineligibility standards for poor performers. The track is also pausing incentives, such as trainer start bonuses and limiting purse payouts to the top five finishers instead of every finisher.