At the Preakness and Beyond, Horse Racing Needs to Clean Up Its Act

On May 1, Medina Spirit, a horse trained by Bob Baffert, one of the stars of thoroughbred racing, somewhat unexpectedly won the Kentucky Derby. About a week later, it emerged that the horse had tested positive for an anti-inflammatory pain-masking drug, throwing his victory into question. Mr. Baffert has been suspended by Churchill Downs, and the horse will most likely lose his win if a second sample confirms the first finding.

That wasn’t enough, however, to keep Medina Spirit from running in the next race of the Triple Crown Saturday, the Preakness Stakes. In the Balkanized world of horse racing, there is no central commission to rule on such matters, as there is in most professional sports. Owners of the Pimlico Race Course in Maryland, where the second race is held, declared that “fundamental fairness” compelled them to let Medina Spirit and a second horse trained by Mr. Baffert enter the race, after Mr. Baffert consented to blood testing, monitoring and medical review of his horses by Maryland authorities.

Medina Spirit will also be allowed to run in the Belmont Stakes in New York on June 5, the third race of the Triple Crown. That would give Mr. Baffert a chance to win the Triple Crown for the third time in seven years.

More than a year after Mr. Baffert’s last Triple Crown win, in 2018 with Justify, The Times revealed that the horse failed a drug test in California weeks before that year’s Kentucky Derby. But instead of a speedy disqualification, the California Horse Racing Board took four months to investigate the results and then dropped the case on dubious grounds behind closed doors.

All that may change next year, if a central racing authority meant to take charge of policing drugs and track safety under the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, passed last December, survives court challenges from groups representing racing associations. The Medina Spirit affair underscores why this can’t happen a moment too soon.

Mr. Baffert, whose horses have failed scores of drug tests over his long career, five of them within the last two years, first insisted that there was no illicit drug in Medina Spirit and that the charges were “like a cancel culture kind of thing.” Then he acknowledged that a bit of the drug in question, betamethasone, might have entered the horse through an antifungal ointment someone had applied to the horse’s rear leg, at the recommendation of Mr. Baffert’s veterinarian. A drug meant to treat swelling and joint pain, betamethasone is not banned, but it shouldn’t be administered in the two weeks preceding a race.

Such confusion is exactly why self-policing is no longer good enough, and such excuses have been sounded far too often in a sport in which nearly 10 horses a week, on average, died at American racetracks in 2018 — a rate far higher than at better-controlled foreign tracks.

Former President Donald Trump contributed his take, bemoaning in a statement that “even our Kentucky Derby winner, Medina Spirit, is a junky.”

Whether Medina Spirit can be justifiably labeled a junkie, given how little choice he or any other horse has over what trainers and vets introduce into their thoroughbred bodies, is moot. There are no conclusive results yet, and the horse passed the first of three tests required to race in the Preakness Stakes. Still, Mr. Trump might have noted that among countless other measures tacked onto the nearly 5,600-page Covid-19 relief and government funding bill he signed less than a month before leaving office was that long-overdue Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act.

The measure is meant to establish an independent, nonprofit authority that is overseen by the Federal Trade Commission to write rules and penalties for thoroughbred racing to be enforced by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency — the one that deals with doping in human competition. The act was pushed over the legislative line by a federal indictment more than nine months earlier in which 27 people in the horse industry were charged with widespread use of drugs that stimulate endurance, mask pain and reduce inflammation, sometimes leading, according to prosecutors, to fatal injuries, all designed to elude detection in existing tests. Among the drugs was one known as red acid, which reduces inflammation in horses’ joints. In the long history of horse doping, tests have found substances as varied as frog and cobra venom, Viagra, cocaine, heart medicines and steroids.

The new authority is supposed to crack down on all that as of July 1, 2022, though the act still faces legal challenges from horse racing organizations. (Mr. Baffert is on record in support of it.) Why they would resist centralized control and the level playing field it could offer is puzzling; attendance at horse races has been in decline for years, and the heavy toll of “breakdowns” among horses — the euphemism for catastrophic injuries incurred during racing, often requiring that the horse be put down — is one reason.

Stern, centralized controls can’t come too soon. But the industry need not wait another year. One way to show good faith would be to get the result from that second sample from Medina Spirit promptly and then to let the chips fall where they should.

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