You have to ask if there’s anything left of horse racing to kill. Perhaps it’s entrenched so deeply into irrelevance, outside of four or five days a year, that just about nothing can make it worse. This is an industry basically surviving on the courtesy of state governments, really.
Still, it doesn’t help to have a scandal involving one of those few days when the world pays attention. But this is where the industry finds itself after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for an anti-inflammatory steroid, and his trainer, Bob Baffert, was suspended indefinitely from Churchill Downs.
Baffert proclaimed his innocence, but one wonders how many times he’s going to get to cry wolf. Baffert fought off a suspension in Arkansas last year when his horses tested positive for the painkiller lidocaine. He was able to duck that by claiming the lidocaine had gotten into their systems through a patch his assistant was wearing after breaking his pelvis. Whose pelvis is Baffert going to break now?
Stories of trainers drugging or dosing their horses are as old as racing itself, but they take on a new tone when it’s Bob Baffert, racing’s most famous and successful trainer, and perhaps its most famous personality. And even more so when it’s his second scandal in a couple years. If Baffert isn’t seen as clean, who would be? Baffert’s stable is, of course, dozens of horses big and he doesn’t personally oversee every single one of them every day. But it’s hard to believe one of his hands went rogue one day, and even if that were the case the buck still stops with Baffert himself.
Baffert is hardly alone of course. Find a leading trainer and you’ll find some sort of fine or suspension in his past. Steve Asmussen has a couple on his resume. Brad Cox had one in 2014. Todd Pletcher has multiple offenses as well. Doug O’Neill has been called “Drug O’Neill” forever. This list could go on. And these are the biggest trainers at the biggest tracks in the country. God knows what you’d find at the lesser circuits.
Part of this stems from horse racing’s inability, through its entire existence, to construct a national board and ruling body. Every state has its own board and its own guidelines for everything, with trainers and owners ducking and weaving between all the differences. There are too many vested interests now for that national board to ever come into being, if the industry actually had the competence to figure out how. Which it most certainly does not.
While on the surface it sounds bad that the sport’s leading figure is now facing claims of cheating for the second time in recent history, how much damage it will do to horse racing is up for debate. Dedicated observers and bettors, however many are left, have always just assumed dirty shit was going on in the backstretch. Those who drop in for the big days — the Triple Crown, the Breeders Cup — aren’t going to care enough to stop having their days out. Those hats only fit at certain events, after all. Especially as sports gambling becomes more and more accepted and popular, and perhaps moves more toward the ponies.
The use of various anti-inflammatories and painkillers may just be a necessary evil in a field where horses have been bred to be faster and faster, but also more and more fragile. Rarely do the best horses get past their age-3 racing season, at least the top ones, nor do they rack up more than 10 or 12 races before being shuttled off to various breeding farms to produce faster and more fragile horses. Durability isn’t a prized feature in the race breeding world. Speed is. Not only does it rob the sport of long careers of horses who could perhaps get anyone to pay attention between May and October, but it makes those horses rarer. But with the money available for retiring a horse to stud, you can hardly blame anyone for taking it.
It’s another black eye for horse racing, no matter how Baffert finds a way to get out of this one. But maybe racing is just out of eyes to darken at this point.