The running of the 146th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland this week — the “middle jewel of the Triple Crown” in thoroughbred racing — will now occur under very regrettable circumstances. Before a single horse has even taken a stride, the event has been marred.
That's because it was preceded by a terrible outcome at the Kentucky Derby: the apparent winner. Medina Spirit tested positive for unacceptable levels of betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory pain-masking agent given to horses to cover up or alleviate injuries. While a second test of the horse’s Derby Day blood sample is currently being analyzed to confirm the presence of the illegal levels of the substance, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert first claimed his Medina Spirit wasn’t given betamethasone at all and now says it was an ingredient in a topical antifungal ointment the animal was given once a day before the race to treat dermatitis.
But he’s made similar claims in the past that proved false; by any reasonable standard, he’s a serial offender of race-day anti-doping rules. Over the last 40 years, the silver-haired trainer’s horses have failed 30 drug tests — five of those within the last two years. At the 2020 Kentucky Oaks race,a Baffert-trained horse named Gamine failed a test for the same drug found in Medina Spirit.
Unscrupulous trainers who drug horses put both animals and jockeys — who may or may not be asked to consent to riding a drugged horse — at risk of life and limb.
Plus, just two years ago, in 2019, Baffert and his prized Triple Crown winner Justify — only the second horse to claim the title in 40 years — were entangled in a similar scandal. After Justify won the Triple Crown races, authorities learned the horse had tested positive at the qualifying event but the test results had been swept under the rug by the California Horse Racing Board, whose chairman had a horse in training with Baffert at the time.
But these drug scandals aren't just a matter of cheating the racing public; it’s dangerous for the horses, their riders and those that race with them. Over the past three years alone, we’ve seen more than 2,000 horses die at American racetracks, and the body count continues to climb. Unscrupulous trainers who drug horses put both animals and jockeys — who may or may not be asked to consent to riding a drugged horse — at risk of life and limb. And, of course, trainers who drug their horses are trying to rig the system, making a mockery of anyone who bets based on their knowledge of the athletes involved in a given race.
The betting public will not and should not tolerate the racing industry’s drug addiction any longer.
There is some hope that doping may finally be brought to an end soon enough. Last year, Congress passed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which was signed into law on Dec. 27, to establish a national, uniform standard for drugs and medication in horse racing. It is the first law enacted by Congress to protect racehorses in nearly 50 years and grants drug rule-making, testing and enforcement oversight to a private, nonprofit self-regulatory organization overseen by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. (That is the same governing body that administers the Olympic anti-doping program and brought light to the doping tactics of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.) The legislation also banned the use of all race-day medication and provides for the same out-of-competition testing used by most other major sports.
Horses continue to die on tracks each week after getting doped by their trainers.
The measure was backed by every major animal protection group in the U.S. as well as The Jockey Club; the Jockeys’ Guild; the Breeders’ Cup; the New York Racing Association; the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance; and all three legs of the Triple Crown. Following the indictment of 27 trainers, veterinarians and other racing interests in March 2020, Baffert himself announced his endorsement of the legislation in the Washington Post (coincidentally on the same day the Post’s editorial board called for the end of horse racing.)
But the new law doesn’t take effect until mid-2022 — and, in the meantime, horses continue to die on tracks each week after getting doped by their trainers.
As the Preakness approaches, we still don’t know when the second drug test on Baffert’s Derby winner will be back or if it will confirm the results of the first test; it's unclear if we'll know what happened before the “middle jewel” runs Saturday.
Churchill Downs, the owner and operator of the Kentucky Derby, has banned Baffert from its grounds as a result of the first drug test, and we applaud its action. But neither the Preakness Stakes nor the Pimlico racetrack has said it will do so; instead, they announced after Baffert's admission that his horse had been treated with that antifungal that they'd cleared Medina Spirit to race with "rigorous testing and monitoring in addition to that conducted by the Maryland Racing Commission." Now racing fans and people concerned with the health of the horses must ask what, exactly, the Preakness and Pimlico are ever going to do to prevent a cheating fiasco like at the Derby.
And — just as importantly — while Marylanders and racing fans sip their signature black-eyed Susan cocktails Saturday at Pimlico, we will all have to wonder whether the racing industry will continue to allow those who are doping horses to give the sport another black eye or if it will rally behind the implementation of the new law and call for Baffert’s exile from American horse racing if he’s found to be guilty.