In the wake of Kentucky Derby champion Medina Spirit’s split sample testing positive for the prohibited anti-inflammatory betamethasone, Churchill Downs suspended trainer Bob Baffert for two years, effective immediately.

Bob Baffert-CDI suspension
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert doubles as the face of his sport. His face won’t be around Churchill Downs for a while after that track suspended him for two years. (Image: AP Photo)

The ruling prohibits the Hall of Fame trainer from entering horses for races or occupying stall space at Churchill Downs, and at all other Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI) tracks. In Baffert’s case, that latter plank won’t be an issue, since his charges rarely – if ever – run at smaller tracks such as Turfway Park and Presque Isle Downs.

CDI also owns Fair Grounds in New Orleans, but Baffert typically sends his horses one state north to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.

Where Baffert will feel the sting of this ban comes at the mothership – Churchill Downs. That’s because the ban runs through the end of the 2023 Churchill Downs Spring Meet, which encompasses the 2022 and 2023 Kentucky Derbies. That means no Baffert entries at the next two Runs for the Roses.

Churchill Downs dropped the hammer quickly

“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,” Bill Carstanjen, the CEO of CDI said in a statement. “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.”

This hammer came down Wednesday afternoon after Craig Robertson, Baffert’s attorney, confirmed in a statement that Medina Spirit’s split sample came back positive for 25 picograms of betamethasone. This validates the initial test that revealed Medina Spirit ran the 2021 Derby with 21 picograms of betamethasone.

A picogram is one-trillionth of a gram. Under Kentucky regulations, betamethasone is legal, but must be out of a horse’s system on race day.

Split sample produced more than the original

Baffert originally said he had no idea how Medina Spirit got betamethasone in his system. Two days later, he said he thought Medina Spirit’s positive test came as a result of a topical ointment, Otomax. Baffert said the horse received the ointment – which contains betamethasone – for a skin rash on his hindquarters.

“In response to the inquiries, this will acknowledge that the Medina Spirit split sample confirmed the finding of betamethasone at 25 picograms,” Robertson’s statement read. “There is other testing that is being conducted, including DNA testing. We expect this additional testing to confirm that the presence of the betamethasone was from the topical ointment, Otomax, and not an injection. At the end of the day, we anticipate this case to be about the treatment of Medina Spirit’s skin rash with Otomax. We will have nothing further to say until the additional testing is complete.”

The New York Times originally reported the story, citing Clark Brewster, attorney for Medina Spirit’s owner, Amr Zedan. Brewster confirmed to the paper that tests on the split sample conducted by the University of California, Davis confirmed the original positive test.

Medina Spirit still Derby champ — for now

In its statement, CDI said the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has the sole authority to disqualify Medina Spirit as Kentucky Derby champion. When announcing Baffert’s original suspension, CDI said if the split sample came back positive, it will take down Medina Spirit and make runner-up Mandaloun the 2021 Derby winner.

The KHRC told Horse Racing Nation it will have no comment until it completes its investigation.

After Baffert revealed the initial test findings to reporters on May 9, CDI suspended him indefinitely. The New York Racing Association suspended him after the Preakness Stakes. That means Baffert couldn’t enter any members of his considerable stable in the Belmont Stakes or any of the undercard races this weekend.

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