Train wreck at Old Hilltop sounds like a great title for a country song, but sadly we are talking about a story that has cast a cloud over Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, the storied second leg of the Triple Crown.
As you have heard by now, Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, tested positive for the drug betamethasone after capturing the Run for the Roses on May 1.
Betamethasone is a legal therapeutic corticosteroid administered to relieve joint inflammation. But while it’s OK to use during training in many jurisdictions, it cannot be present – even at minute levels – when the horse is entered to race.
That’s what we’re talking about here, with Medina Spirit’s post-race blood sample showing 21 picograms (trillionths of a gram) of the drug per milliliter of blood.
Churchill Downs suspended Baffert from entering any horses at the track until the matter is resolved and said it will strip Medina Spirit of his Derby victory if tests on a “split sample” confirm the positive.
But The Stronach Group, owner of Pimlico Race Course (aka Old Hilltop), and Maryland racing officials decided to allow Baffert to enter the colt in the $1 million Preakness under “rigorous conditions,” including “full transparency of medical and testing results that will allow for all results to be released to the public.”
NBC, which will broadcast the Preakness and several undercard races from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on NBCSN and from 2 to 4:30 p.m. on KSNV-3, heaved a deep sigh of relief.
Baffert has proclaimed his innocence, arguing that the horse had never been treated with the drug, but later amending that to say it was discovered that his team used a topical anti-fungal cream containing betamethasone to treat a skin condition on Medina Spirit’s hindquarters.
While the case likely will take weeks if not months or years to sort out, Baffert now will be able to run Medina Spirit in the 10-horse Preakness field along with highly regarded stablemate Concert Tour.
While the presence of betamethasone is grounds for a DQ in Kentucky, that doesn’t mean that Baffert was cheating or that Medina Spirit had an unfair edge over the Derby competition, according C. Wayne McIlwraith, the founder of the Orthopaedic Research Center at Colorado State and likely the world’s leading expert on the effects of steroids on racehorses.
The levels of betamethasone found in Medina Spirit’s system would not have enhanced the colt’s performance, he said. He speculated before Baffert’s announcement about the skin cream that such levels could be caused by accidental contamination through the use of other products containing betamethasone.
McIlwraith also highlighted an issue with the increasing sensitivity of laboratory tests, which are capable of producing positives for almost infinitesimal traces of substances banned from race-day use.
“It’s not deliberate. It’s not affecting performance, but it still gets categorized as serious doping,” McIlwraith said.
We’ll return to the subject soon. I expect Medina Spirit to win the Preakness, setting the stage for more drama before the Belmont Stakes on June 5. He might even be a halfway decent price as Derby winners go, if casual fans steer clear because of the “doping” accusations leveled at Baffert.
Ellis Starr’s Preakness Stakes analysis
Midnight Bourbon will be my top choice to win this year’s Preakness, the reasoning being what happened — or more appropriately what did not happen — in the Kentucky Derby. According to statements made prior to the Derby, the plan was to send Midnight Bourbon to the lead at the start. This plan was quickly put to rest right out of the gate as the horse was bumped and found himself far back, eventually rallying to finish sixth in the 19 horse field, tying his career-best 99 Equibase Speed Figure earned in January. That strategy, if able to be applied, may have worked well given Midnight Bourbon had raced close up in the Louisiana Derby when he finished second to Hot Rod Charlie (who ended up third in the Kentucky Derby) and as Midnight Bourbon had also raced in second early in the Risen Star Stakes before finishing third behind Risen Star winner Mandaloun, who was the runner-up in the Kentucky Derby. In his first start as a 3-year-old, Midnight Bourbon won the Lecomte Stakes (with a 99 Equibase figure) when leading from start to finish, which were exactly the tactics Medina Spirit used in winning the Kentucky Derby. With a jockey change to Irad Ortiz, Jr., the North American leading jockey of 2020 and leader of the standings this year, Midnight Bourbon may get a forward position from the start in the Preakness which would enable him to run his best race of the year and post the mild upset.
Medina Spirit took the lead and took control at the start of the Kentucky Derby, getting into a steady stride and holding off all challengers in the last quarter mile before pulling away slightly in the late stages to win by a half-length. The effort earned a career-best 110 Equibase figure which is eight points (about five lengths) better as compared to any other horse in the Preakness field. Prior to that, Medina Spirit earned 97, 98 and 97 figures winning or finishing second in all three Derby prep races in California, including a second in the Santa Anita Derby. It is very interesting to note that Medina Spirit has never been passed by another horse in the final quarter mile and that is a testament to his mental toughness. On the other hand, although he did win the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on the lead from the start as he did in the Derby, prior to that Medina Spirit ran second from start to finish in the Sham Stakes and second or third for the majority of the race in both the San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby. I can’t say for certain if this is an indication Medina Spirit doesn’t want to pass other horses, that he can’t pass other horses because he doesn’t have a second gear or that is just the way these races played out. Either way, Medina Spirit must be respected as a logical contender to win the Preakness. although as the likely prohibitive favorite, I think Midnight Bourbon and Unbridled Honor offer more value.
Unbridled Honor took three tries to earn his first career win. That win came in February at Tampa Bay Downs and was followed by a fourth of 12 finish in the Tampa Bay Derby. Entering the Lexington Stakes on April 10, Unbridled Honor dropped back to last in the field of nine and began running in earnest with a quarter mile to run. Going four paths wide on the far turn, Unbridled Honor closed second fastest of all to finish second to King Fury, who was well in front by the time the field hit the stretch. The Lexington Stakes ended at the first of two finish lines at Keeneland so Unbridled Honor didn’t have the full length of the stretch to continue his rally. In spite of that, Unbridled Honor earned a career-best 99 figure, which is as good as the figures Medina Spirit earned in his last three races before the Derby and as good as the figure Midnight Bourbon earned in the Derby. Additionally, the Preakness utilizes the entire length of the stretch as opposed to the Lexington so although Unbridled Honor may be last of 10 in the early stages, if there is a contested battle for the front from the start, he could be passing most if not all of the field for the win.
The rest of the Preakness Stakes field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Concert Tour (105); Crowded Trade (105); France Go do Ina (101); Keepmeinmind (99); Ram (88); Risk Taking (102); and Rombauer (100).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.