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Medina Spirit stripped of Kentucky Derby win; trainer Bob Baffert fined, suspended

In the wake of the ruling by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, the Derby announced runner-up Mandaloun as the race's official 2021 winner.
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Medina Spirit, whose commanding victory in the 2021 Kentucky Derby helped to cement Bob Baffert as one of horse racing's most decorated trainers, was stripped of the race's title Monday, nine months after an investigation into a failed post-race drug test.

Medina Spirit's purse money for winning the Derby — about $1.86 million — must also be forfeited, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission said in a ruling. In addition, Baffert will be suspended for 90 days from the sport beginning next month and must pay a $7,500 fine.

An attorney for Baffert said he planned to appeal the decision.

Mandaloun, who placed second at the 147th running of the Derby, which is held annually at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, was named the race's official winner.

In a statement, Churchill Downs did not address the commission's decision, but congratulated Mandaloun's trainer, Brad Cox, and jockey, Florent Geroux.

"Winning the Kentucky Derby is one of the most exciting achievements in sports and we look forward to celebrating Mandaloun on a future date in a way that is fitting of this rare distinction," officials at the horse racing complex said.

Medina Spirit, a 3-year-old colt, died in December after suffering an apparent heart attack during a workout in California. No definitive cause of death could be determined, the California Horse Racing Board later said.

In its ruling, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission confirmed that a laboratory found the horse had tested positive for betamethasone after the Kentucky Derby on May 1. Betamethasone is a legal, pain-relieving steroid commonly used to treat horses, but in many states, including Kentucky, no amount of it is allowed in a horse's system on race day.

Veterinarians caution against overuse of betamethasone, fearing it could mask serious bone and joint injuries and lead to a deadly breakdown.

Baffert denied accusations that he had drugged the horse after a split urine test, saying the drug was in Medina Spirit's system because of a topical ointment.

The controversy left a stain on the legacies of Medina Spirit, who had strong finishes in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic and Preakness Stakes, and Baffert, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify. He was also suspended from the Churchill Downs track for two years in June.

Baffert's attorney, W. Craig Robertson III, said an appeal against Medina Spirit's disqualification would be filed immediately.

"I am very disappointed in the ruling," Robertson said in a statement. "It runs contrary to the scientifically proven facts in this case and the rules of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission."

Another lawyer on Baffert’s legal team argued his client did not violate any of the commission’s rules because they deny the betamethasone was injected into the horse. The trace amount found in Medina Spirit “could not have affected the horse in any way,” Clark Brewster said, and it “could not have possibly affected the outcome of the race.”

Medina Spirit is only the third horse in the Derby's history to be disqualified from the prestigious event after coming in first. In 1968, Dancer's Image was disqualified days after the race after a banned pain reliever was discovered in a post-race drug test, and in 2019, Maximum Security's victory was invalidated shortly after winning after it was ruled that the horse dangerously impeded the path of its competitors.

It's highly unlikely that anything can be done to claw back winnings already paid to fans who bet on Medina Spirit. It's equally unlikely that backers of Mandaloun — or any other horse who would have finished one place higher if not for Medina Spirit — will be compensated for their losing tickets.

When asked if Mandaloun bettors could ever prevail in a legal challenge, Louisville attorney Robert Heleringer bluntly responded: "No, sir. No possibility whatsoever."

Once races are declared official, those results — in terms of betting — are set in stone, according to Heleringer, author of "Equine Regulatory Law."

"It's just one of many risks any bettor, at the track or online, assumes when they put their money down," said Heleringer, who teaches equine regulatory law at the University of Louisville's Brandeis School of Law.