When horse racing makes the mainstream media it is for one of four reasons: a) Kentucky Derby result; b) drugs; c) fatalities; d) corruption. Recent articles in The New Yorker and The Washington Post were able to hit all four areas. I trust it goes without saying that three of those will not present a positive view of racing. Only the Derby tends to be positive, but as both articles point out, there are elements of the other three in this year’s event.
A concept I have only recently become familiar with is racing’s “license to operate.” It is the notion that only public acceptance of an activity will allow it to continue. Thus, greyhound racing is becoming extinct, circuses are no longer exhibiting elephants, and aquatic exhibits are also disappearing. Only the most oblivious would think racing will escape this scrutiny.
That makes the portrayal of racing in mainstream media all the more important. Neither The New Yorker nor the Post are where one looks for horse racing coverage, so their prominent articles deserve a high level of concern. Even New York Magazine, which has a frivolous back page of “approvals,” identified Bob Baffert as the “shady face of horse racing.” Dr. Rick Arthur, the esteemed Equine Medical Director in California is quoted in The New Yorker: “The fate of racing will be decided by people who’ve never been to the races, know nothing about horses, have never even touched a racehorse.”
As a fan, owner and breeder, I would love to dismiss both of these pieces. But there is much that I cannot dispute factually, and with which I agree.
A unifying thread is trainer Bob Baffert who trained Medina Spirit, the seeming winner of the Derby until Baffert revealed that the colt tested positive for a medication in excess of the allowable limit in Kentucky, which is zero. It is not Baffert’s first brush with medication violations. Indeed, it was the fifth one in the space of a year, including three in Grade I stakes and one for the same drug, betamethasone, at the same track, Churchill Downs.
It is The New Yorker article, written by William Finnegan, that presents the most comprehensive look at the sport — indeed, it is entitled “Can Horse Racing Survive?” It begins with the fatal breakdown of Mongolian Groom in 2019 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita in 2019. This marked the culmination of a rash of catastrophic breakdowns at Santa Anita that year that threatened the survival of racing in that state, if not in the country. That it happened in the second most important race in the country (along with the Derby) heightened its significance in terms of the sport’s perception.
The facile response of the public to breakdowns is the use of drugs. While drugs may certainly be one factor, catastrophic injuries can have several causes. One of those is the track surface itself, and that appears to be the most significant reason for the Santa Anita deaths. Southern California experienced unusually high rainfall that year. That not only requires maintenance crews to take remedial steps to mitigate the impact of the water, but the composition of the track surface itself can also be the issue. Saratoga Race Course in New York in the last two years has overhauled the composition of its main racing surface and the training track located across the street with a view to increasing safety.
What is not discussed in Finnegan’s piece, however, is that the track condition at Santa Anita, especially after all that rain, was not regarded as safe according to articles at the time, yet trainers continued to send their horses out. That would suggest that it was not the track condition per se that was the problem, but rather the behavior of trainers.
Another important issue in safety is the role of track management in seeking large fields. Field size is an important determinant of handle, and handle is an important determinant in a track’s bottom line. According to Finnegan, “a Santa Anita trainer publicly complained that she’d had trouble scratching a horse when she considered the track unsafe.” When New York had its own crisis with a rise in fatalities back in 2012, a similar concern was raised because scratches recommended by a veterinarian had to be approved by the racing office. That office had a vested interest in large fields as noted above. The solution was to transfer that responsibility to the veterinary office to avoid the conflict of interests.
But drugs have been the most pernicious threat to racing’s longevity and perception. That gets us to The Washington Post piece by Gus Garcia-Roberts and Steven Rich, appropriately titled “The dark side of Bob Baffert’s reign.” While major sports have a single figure who can be the spokesperson for it, racing has no such person. Instead, a trainer based in California has taken on an out-sized influence, a role he clearly relishes. Unfortunately, other than his success in major races, there is nothing to commend Baffert as a principled and honest figure. Indeed, Baffert may have evolved into yet another pernicious threat to racing’s survival.
Baffert’s telegenic personality and seemingly affable nature would appear to make him an ideal figure in a sport needing both public acceptance and growth. Yet as The New Yorker article asserts, his “career of breezy impunity” only deepens racing’s “disrepute among the general public.”
The initial revelation of the Kentucky Derby winner’s drug positive was revealed in a press conference he called in the barn at Churchill Downs where the horse was stabled. His approach was one akin to those of politicians from Donald Trump to Andrew Cuomo and many more in between. He denied that it happened because the horse was never treated with betamethasone; there were probably people out to get him; and the horse was a victim of “cancel culture” — seriously, he said that about an animal.
The depth of investigation by Baffert and his attorney was so extensive that neither knew what the appropriate threshold level is for betamethasone even though just eight months earlier another Baffert trainee not only tested positive but was disqualified from the most important race for three-year old fillies in the country — and cost the owners $121,250 in purse money.
Two days later he revealed that Medina Spirit had been treated with an ointment containing betamethasone for a skin irritation on a daily basis for some four weeks. Again, Baffert said he did not know about this and, apparently, no one on his staff was aware that he lost a significant purse for the same medication a few months ago in the same state.
Baffert’s defenses in these cases take on a familiar patter. First, he denies it. Then, he tries to blame someone else: lidocaine positives were because a long-time assistant had a patch for back pain, or it was someone taking cough medicine urinating in a stall. When he had a morphine (really) positive, it was because a stable hand was eating a poppy seed bagel near the horse. (That explains why I’ve been eating a half-dozen per day for several years now.)
Then he minimizes the violation. The argument made on the Medina Spirit positive is that the amount of betamethasone in the 50 milliliter sample is akin to a grain of sand in the ocean. That may be a compelling argument if that was the limit of the drug in the horse’s system, but as the highly-respected Dr. Mary Scollay points out, 50 milligrams is a small amount, but a horse can have 50,000 milliliters of blood in its body.
Baffert is also arguing that Kentucky’s regulation is intended to only address injectable drugs and not ointments, although there is no support for that position in the regulations.
A corollary of that argument — and one that he makes — is that the drug is not “performance-enhancing.” That is one of the two boilerplate defenses to drug positives (the other being “he loves his horses”). And it is one of the most disingenuous assertions pertaining to drugs in racing. There are three categories of equine drugs. One is the illegal medications that have no therapeutic benefit and are strictly performance-enhancing. The next are legal therapeutic medications that have no effect on a horse’s ability to train or race.
The third category, however, is in many ways the most troublesome because they can affect a horse’s training or racing. They are “legal” therapeutic medications, but can mask inflammation or pain. The result is to hide a problem that will not be picked up in a veterinary exam or, worse, result in the horse overextending itself because it cannot experience pain.
To “strengthen” the argument that such medications are not performance-enhancing, an additional common approach is to minimize the significance of the medication by equating it to over-the-counter medications for humans. One attorney claimed that Baffert’s 30 drug violations recorded by the Association of Racing Commissioners International should not be counted, according to the Post article, because they were akin to “coming to work with too much Advil in your system.”
But if you do not trust pharmacological opinions from an attorney, Natalie Voss of the Paulick Report reported one study on the effects of joint injections of betamethasone: “A major concern … is that horses may be able to return to racing before they are completely healed following an injury….” You know, just like Advil. And let’s not forget that Baffert’s Gamine was disqualified from the Kentucky Oaks because of a betamethasone positive, a finding he did not even contest.
While one would like to think this is an exhaustive, if not exhausting, list of problems, we also have the federal indictments of numerous individuals, including two high-profile trainers, the role of Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum who is credibly accused of kidnapping two of his daughters (one of whom has not been heard from in months), and the controversy (within racing, that is) on the use of whips.
There are steps being taken to address some of these issues. Were it not for increasing public scrutiny, I doubt how much progress would have been made despite the efforts of many responsible forces within the industry. The most significant of these is the passage of federal legislation, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, that will nationalize drug policies, including the administration of investigations and enforcement. That responsibility will be assumed by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, the organization that freed bicycling from Lance Armstrong and that has cleaned up other sports, including track and field.
While HISA will significantly enhance uniformity in overseeing medications, there remains a major gap on all other issues affecting the sport, particularly on disciplinary matters. There is a sense that some trainers are “too big to fail,” with Baffert a prime example. The Washington Post article does an outstanding job of tracing Baffert’s career and how he has manipulated regulatory bodies and even California’s legislature to minimize any threat to his ability to carry on as he has all these years. Garcia-Roberts and Rich point out that despite Baffert’s multiple violations over the course of his career, in which he has earned over $300 million in purses, he has paid “roughly $20,000 in fines.” Let that one sink in.
The Post article includes a chart ranking California trainers by deaths per 1,000 starts in the state. Baffert tops the list with 8.30 fatalities per 1,000 starts. The article references a rash of unexplained deaths in Baffert’s barn. Seven horses died from unknown causes. It turns out that Baffert was mixing a medication called thyroxine in feed on a regular basis. When called on it, he gave a reason for doing so that was contrary to the purpose of the medication. The California Horse Racing Board could not determine whether the drug, although inappropriately administered, caused the fatalities.
But he is not the only high-profile trainer to get a pass on administering this particular medication. On a national network broadcast, Steve Asmussen acknowledged “feeding” his horses thyroxine as if it were a dietary supplement and not a powerful medicine. New York’s Gaming Commission fined him $10,000 for 58 violations at that year’s Saratoga meeting even though the minimum fine specified by their own regulations was three times that.
tSo racing has a number of difficult and troublesome issues. Progress is being made on many of these fronts although it is neither as fast or comprehensive as many would hope. But there are trainers, regulators, owners, breeders, national organizations and racing media figures who are working to improve the sport and get us away from the Bob Bafferts. Just a year ago, a federal anti-doping bill was given little chance of success and now there are people charged with implementing it.
One of the encouraging signs is The Thoroughbred Daily News, the one essential publication for the industry. Just yesterday, their weekly podcast The TDN Writers’ Room began with a segment on the dangers posed by the Baffert case, but ended (after the one-hour mark) with a vision for moving forward from Aron Wellman of Eclipse Thoroughbreds.
When I think of my favorite moment from racing, it is an event at Saratoga Race Course one morning in 2015. The New York Racing Association announced that American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 would gallop around the track — not work, but just gallop. I planned on parking in my usual spot near the Nelson Avenue gate, but as I drove over I realized the throngs of people walking in that direction meant I could not park close. I ended up near downtown, farther away than if i had just walked from my home. When I got there, the place was packed. Reportedly 15,000 were in the grandstand. The backstretch, which typically has one or two dozen not actually working there, had thousands. More people showed up for this than went to the afternoon’s races. Everyone was there to just see a horse. The colt’s human connections — both the owner and trainer — have fallen into disrepute, but people were not there for them, but for a magnificent animal. It’s a useful reminder that the horse is the draw.