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.
Ellis Starr’s Mr. Prospector Stakes analysis
The Grade 3, $100,000 Mr. Prospector Stakes on Saturday at Gulfstream Park drew a field of seven sprinters running seven furlongs in an intriguing race because not one of the group has finished in the top three in a graded stakes in 2021.
Here are the main win contenders:
Officiating took seven tries to earn his first win, doing so on turf this past March. Following his maiden win and after missing by a neck in a non-graded stakes race on turf and a mediocre third place effort on dirt, he was privately transferred to the barn of trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr. Then, after fourth and third place finishes on turf, Officiating was entered in the Bear’s Den Stakes, scheduled for turf, but stayed in the race which was moved to dirt due to weather, earning a career best 110 Equibase Speed Figure and winning authoritatively by 3 1/2 lengths. In his most recent race, Officiating tried the Tapeta all-weather surface and two-turns in the Showing Up Stakes last month and ran poorly, demonstrating only he did not like the surface nor the distance. Cutting back to the distance of the Bear’s Den while moving back to the surface of that race, it can be assumed Officiating can duplicate his effort in that race, which is good enough to win. There is also little doubt about his being able to run as well considering his last two workouts on dirt coming into the race have been excellent.
Dennis’ Moment was thought to be a top 2-year-old in the summer of 2019 following his 19 length win in July with a 106 figure, virtually unheard of for a young horse. He won the Iroquois Stakes two months later but after finishing last of eight in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Stakes he was given time off to mature. When returning in the Fountain of Youth Stakes in February 2020, Dennis’ Moment was sent to post as the heavy favorite but finished 10th and last. Rested another nine months, he ran poorly one year ago and was again given time off. This time the rest helped greatly as Dennis’ Moment missed by a head in a 6-furlong sprint. Two races later in October, Dennis’ Moment earned his first win in 25 months in a highly rated race at Keeneland at the distance of the Mr. Prospector, duplicating the 106 figure earned in the summer of 2019. With logical improvement off that effort in his fourth start off the rest and at the same distance of his last effort, Dennis’ Moment has every right to earn a graded stakes win for the second time in his career.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Doc Amster (103); Endorsed (110); Flap Jack (101); Poppy’s Pride (97); and Wind of Change (BRZ) (114).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.