Medina Spirit drug test confirmed; Baffert suspended two years

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bob Baffert is on track to have his record seventh Kentucky Derby victory taken away and won’t be able to run any horses in the prestigious race for the next two years.

Churchill Downs on Wednesday suspended the Hall of Fame trainer for two years after an additional drug test of Medina Spirit confirmed the presence of the steroid betamethasone in the Kentucky Derby winner’s system. The next step could be the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission disqualifying Medina Spirit, and now Baffert won’t be able to enter any horses in the Derby or other races at the storied track through the spring of 2023.

“Reckless practices and substance violations that jeopardize the safety of our equine and human athletes or compromise the integrity of our sport are not acceptable and as a company we must take measures to demonstrate that they will not be tolerated,” Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen said. “Mr. Baffert’s record of testing failures threatens public confidence in thoroughbred racing and the reputation of the Kentucky Derby. Given these repeated failures over the last year, including the increasingly extraordinary explanations, we firmly believe that asserting our rights to impose these measures is our duty and responsibility.”

Churchill Downs initially suspended Baffert indefinitely pending the investigation and now said it reserves the right to extend Baffert’s suspension if he has any other violations in other states. Baffert has had five in the past 13 months.

Maryland racing officials allowed Medina Spirit and Baffert-trained Concert Tour to run in the Preakness on May 15 only after undergoing three rounds of prerace testing. New York banned Baffert indefinitely and prevented him from entering any horses in the Belmont Stakes.

The stunning ban by Churchill Downs could have a domino effect that takes the only trainer to win the Triple Crown since 1978 off the trail completely. It was not immediately clear if Preakness and Belmont officials will follow suit or wait until the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s investigation is complete.

Earlier Wednesday, lawyers for Baffert and Medina Spirit owner Amr Zedan confirmed the split-sample test came back positive for betamethasone.

Baffert’s attorney, Craig Robertson, said the second test showed 25 picograms of the steroid, after 21 picograms were found in the first sample. Even a trace amount of betamethasone – a picogram is a trillionth of one gram – is prohibited on race day in Kentucky, Maryland and New York, which are home to the sport’s Triple Crown races, and considered a violation.

Robertson said additional testing is being conducted to try to trace the source of the drug to an ointment to treat a skin infection and not an injection. He and Zedan attorney Clark Brewster said they expect tests to show the ointment is responsible and not injections into one of the horse’s joints.

“I think that will shed the light most prominently on the issue here for us,” Brewster told The Associated Press by phone. “The whole basis for listing betamethasone is because it’s injected into a joint and they want you not to inject the joints too close to the race, so the whole substantive basis is out the window if it’s a salve, and it can be proven scientifically and empirically to be the salve.”

Rules in Kentucky do not differentiate punishment based on the source of the substance, which can be given to horses to help their joints and Baffert believes came from the dermatitis ointment. Churchill Downs said Medina Spirit would be disqualified if the split sample came back positive for betamethasone.

A spokeswoman for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. Sherelle Roberts-Pierre said the commission “values fairness and transparency and will provide information to the media and public at the close of an investigation.”

Brewster said he hoped the additional tests would come back in a week to 10 days.

“At the end of the day, we anticipate this case to be about the treatment of Medina Spirit’s skin rash with Otomax,” Robertson said. “We will have nothing further to say until the additional testing is complete.”

If Medina Spirit is disqualified, Mandaloun would be elevated as the winner of the May 1 Kentucky Derby.

“I can’t control the outcome of that, so it’s something I give very, very little thought to,” said Brad Cox, who trains Mandaloun and would be the first trainer from Louisville to win the race.

Baffert initially denied wrongdoing in a May 9 news conference announcing the positive result, which he called “the biggest gut-punch in racing for something that I didn’t do.” He later cited the antifungal ointment as a potential cause.

Asked if he thought tests showing evidence of the steroid coming from an ointment would change the outcome, Brewster said: “You’re asking me to predict the behavior and the decision-making of others, but if you ask me `should’ – absolutely.”

This would be the second Derby disqualification in three years after 2019 winner Maximum Security was DQ’d for interference following the race and Country House declared the winner. The only previous time that a Derby winner was disqualified after the fact for failing a postrace drug test was 1968 with Dancer’s Image.

Irad Ortiz sets single-season record with 77th stakes win

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NEW YORK – Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. earned his record 77th single-season North American stakes victory on Saturday when he guided Dr B to victory in the $200,000 Go for Wand at Aqueduct.

The 30-year-old native of Puerto Rico broke the old mark of 76 set by the late Hall of Fame rider Garrett Gomez in 2007.

“This is great. Amazing feeling,” said Ortiz, Jr., who won the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey from 2018-20. “Gomez did it in 2007 and he was a great rider, one of the best in the game. I’m so happy just to be a part of this. I love this sport.”

Ortiz Jr. won the Belmont Stakes with Mo Donegal in June to go with Breeders’ Cup victories in the Juvenile, Filly & Mare Sprint and Sprint. He also earned nine other Grade 1 wins in New York, including Life Is Good in the Woodward and Whitney and Nest in the Alabama and Coaching Club Oaks. He won riding titles at Belmont’s spring-summer meet and Saratoga’s summer meet.

Ortiz Jr. leads North American riders with 304 overall victories this year. His purse earnings totaled over $35.8 million going into Saturday’s races, which already surpassed his single-season record of $34.1 million in 2019.

Appeals court strikes down federal horseracing rules act

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NEW ORLEANS — Congress unconstitutionally gave too much power to a nonprofit authority it created in 2020 to develop and enforce horseracing rules, a federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled Friday.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, or HISA, is “facially unconstitutional.”

The authority created by the act was meant to bring uniform policies and enforcement to horseracing amid doping scandals and racetrack horse deaths. But the 5th Circuit – in two rulings issued Friday – ruled in favor of opponents of the act in lawsuits brought by horseracing associations and state officials in Texas, Louisiana and West Virginia.

The Federal Trade Commission has the ultimate authority to approve or reject HISA regulations, but it can’t modify them. And the authority can reject proposed modifications.

Three 5th Circuit judges agreed with opponents of the act – including the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and similar groups in multiple states – that the setup gave too much power to the nongovernmental authority and too little to the FTC.

“A cardinal constitutional principle is that federal power can be wielded only by the federal government. Private entities may do so only if they are subordinate to an agency,” Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote for the panel that ruled in the Texas case.

The same panel, which also included judges Carolyn Dineen King and Kurt Engelhardt, cited the Texas ruling in a separate order in favor of horseracing interests and regulators challenging HISA in a different case.

The chair of the horseracing authority’s board of directors said it would ask for further court review. Friday’s ruling could be appealed to the full 5th Circuit court of the Supreme Court.

“If today’s ruling were to stand, it would not go into effect until January 10, 2023 at the earliest,” Charles Scheeler said in an email. “We are focused on continuing our critical work to protect the safety and integrity of Thoroughbred racing, including the launch of HISA’s Anti-Doping and Medication Control Program on January 1, 2023.”

The ruling was criticized by Marty Irby, executive director of the Animal Wellness Action organization. “Over the course of three Congresses, the most brilliant legal minds on Capitol Hill addressed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act’s constitutionality and ultimately decided that the Federal Trade Commission’s limited oversight was sufficient,” Irby said in an email.

Among the subjects covered by the authority’s rules and enforcement were jockey safety (including a national concussion protocol), the riding crop and how often riders can use it during a race, racetrack accreditation, and the reporting of training and veterinary records.

Animal rights groups, who supported the law, pointed to scandals in the industry involving medication and the treatment of horses.

Duncan wrote that in declaring HISA unconstitutional, “we do not question Congress’s judgment about problems in the horseracing industry. That political call falls outside our lane.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, hailed the ruling on Twitter, calling HISA a “federal takeover of Louisiana horse racing.”