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Derby drug case takes tragic turn with Medina Spirit’s death

Though I am incredibly blessed to write about a sport I love, there are some weeks when it’s difficult to put words into print. This is one of those.

The sudden death of Medina Spirit at the end of a 5-furlong workout at Santa Anita on Monday was a real gut punch for everyone who cares about horses, including those of us who marvel at them as we bet.

The Bob Baffert-trained dark bay colt — the precarious 2021 Kentucky Derby winner for at least a while longer — was relatively small of stature but had an abundance of speed and determination. He also was kind and intelligent, according to the humans who worked closely with him.

But despite the courage he demonstrated in the early West Coast 3-year-old races and again in the Derby, when he simply refused to let those other horses get by in the stretch, Medina Spirit’s legacy will likely not be a heroic one.

He will most probably be remembered as the horse who “tested positive for a banned drug” in the Derby. Or maybe it will be as the horse who brought a Hall of Fame trainer down from his roost atop the racing world? Or perhaps he will be the horse who was wrongly accused and then struck down before his reputation could be restored?

We won’t even begin to know for a while. A necropsy will be conducted as required by California Horse Racing Board rules to attempt to determine Medina Spirit’s cause of death. Board spokesman Mike Marten said the investigation will likely take two months, due to toxicology tests and the outsourcing of some samples for analysis.

When it is finished, it may not be conclusive. That was the case with Swale, who won the 1984 Derby before dying suddenly after a workout eight days after also capturing the Belmont Stakes. His necropsy found a “very small area of fibrosis beneath the aortic valve” that may have produced a fatal arrhythmia in his heart.

But in an age where judge, jury and executioner often are one and the same, that’s no reason to hesitate. The pitchfork mobs on social media are in full throat calling for Baffert’s head. He is obviously using designer drugs and needs to be banned from the sport for life, is their general contention.

There are some calmer voices, urging that the legal case over Medina Spirit’s positive drug test after the Derby and the investigation of his death be allowed to run their course before Baffert is run out of the game. They tend to get drowned out pretty quickly.

Baffert has been his own worst enemy through the fiasco, at one point saying on Fox News that “cancel culture” was behind the effort to discredit the horse. And he’s directly responsible for the most shocking revelation to come out during the controversy: a Washington Post analysis published in June that found at least 74 horses had died in his care in California since 2000, more than all but two of the hundreds of trainers in the state.

Now it’s 75.

I’m not sure whether Baffert can ride this scandal out. His public image may be tarnished beyond repair, even if he is ultimately found to be guilty of nothing more than carelessness. He’s already lost a handful of high-profile horses, including top 3-year-olds Life Is Good and Following Sea, both of whom were sent to trainer Todd Pletcher.

But however it plays out, I’m deeply saddened by the loss of Medina Spirit. My mind keeps circling back to three simple words: He deserved better.

Update on the legal case

The news of Medina Spirit’s death overshadowed a development in Baffert’s ongoing legal battle with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission: Baffert’s attorneys announced late Friday that the long-running testing of the colt’s urine by a New York lab found evidence that the positive test was the result of a topical application of betomethasone, not an injection into the horse’s joints.

The statement has not yet been confirmed by anyone, as far as I know, and it may not matter anyway. Kentucky racing regulations don’t distinguish between means of exposure.

But if the finding is as represented, it could give Baffert’s attorney room to argue that the penalty for an accidental contamination should be something short of disqualification.

We’ll know more soon.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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