The face of horse racing sits behind tinted glasses and a head full of wispy, silver hair. The smooth talking schmoozer made history while reinforcing his critics’ belief, creating the perfect storm for the world of horse racing.
Eight days after Bob Baffert won his record seventh Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs officials revealed that Medina Spirit failed a post-race drug test for the anti-inflammatory drug betamethasone, jeopardizing the three-year-old’s win over Mandaloun in the colt’s quest for a Triple Crown. In the 25 years since Baffert rose to stardom beneath the Twin Spires, he’s become equally familiar with success and controversy, epitomizing the sport’s complexities.
Bob Baffert is horse racing’s superhero and villain, all wrapped in a beautiful bundle of excuses.
A Hero’s Origin Story
Like most heroes, Baffert comes from humble beginnings. Raised on a ranch in Arizona, he spent most of his time with chickens and cattle until his father introduced him to the world of quarter horses, eventually finding his footing at Los Alamitos Race Course in California.
Baffert’s breakthrough in the mid-90s was a Cinderella story of sorts. In 1996 Cavonnier led Derby field at the sixteenth pole but was caught at the wire by Grindstone. The following year Baffert won his first Derby with Silver Charm, a beautiful gray that nearly won the Triple Crown at Belmont Park. In 1998 Real Quiet was even closer to Triple Crown greatness, losing by a nose in a photo finish. Each of his first two Derby winners sold for less than $20,000, a true underdog story.
Officially a star, it took him two more decades before he was able to finally quench his Triple Crown thirst. American Pharoah galloped his way to greatness, reaching unprecedented heights with a Breeders’ Cup Classic victory at Keeneland, the sport’s first ever Grand Slam.
The once smug, West Coast P.T. Barnum was humbled by the experience. The world fell in love with American Pharoah, while Baffert simultaneously transformed into a down-to-Earth figure as the best horse trainer in the sport’s history. It was the perfect bookend to the Bob Baffert saga, yet this hero lived long enough to become the villain.
Medina Spirit’s failed Kentucky Derby drug test is not a first for Bob Baffert. In his Hall of Fame career there have been 31 such incidents, with five coming in the last 12 months. The first big headline grab happened after Justify won the 2018 Triple Crown, Baffert’s second.
Three months after winning the Belmont Stakes, The New York Times reported that Justify failed a post-race drug test in the Santa Anita Derby after the performance-enhancing drug scopolamine was found in his system. The failed test did not come to light until after the Triple Crown was won, causing few to throw a fit. What was done was done.
Two years later in the spring of 2020, two Baffert horses, Charlatan and the filly Gamine, failed drug tests after lidocaine was found in their system on Arkansas Derby Day. An anti-inflammatory found over the counter, it’s allowed for use as a therapeutic, just not not on race day. Baffert had a good excuse — something along the lines of “the handler had lidocaine cream on his hands and it got into their system — yet the victorious horses were still DQ’d. It was sketchy, yet the ramifications were not wide-reaching.
Later that fall Gamine failed ANOTHER drug test after finishing third in the September Kentucky Oaks, leading to another disqualification. The drug was different than the first, this time it was for betamethasone, another anti-inflammatory barred on race day.
A blind fool can see a pattern developing.
“It Wasn’t Me”
The best bad guys are the ones that break the rules, yet still get away with it. Like in almost every case of a failed drug test, Kentucky horse racing officials will split the original sample from Medina Spirit and retest it. Like in most cases, the appeal will probably not change the results of the initial test. With an historic disqualification hanging in the balance, Baffert was left stunned.
“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” Baffert said Sunday at Churchill Downs. “I know everybody’s not out to get me, but there’s definitely something wrong. Why is it happening to me? There’s problems in racing, but it’s not Bob Baffert.”
Baffert stole that line straight from the Rick Pitino-Papa John PR handbook. Not only did deny the accusations, he used hyperbole by playing the conspiracy theory card despite a mountain of evidence against him. He upped the ante on Monday by blaming cancel culture.
“We live in a different world now,” Baffert said in an appearance on Fox News. “This America is different. It was like a cancel culture kind of a thing.”
On to Baltimore
In the midst of spewing nonsensical excuses for the latest incident, Baffert revealed that he plans on racing Concert Tour and Medina Spirit in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes. Even if Medina Spirit is disqualified from the Kentucky Derby and removed from Triple Crown contention, this Preakness Stakes will be the most anticipated race at Pimlico since Seabiscuit defeated War Admiral.
A rule is not a rule without consequences. Absent a national governing body for horse racing, each state has a different enforcement agency. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has suspended Baffert from racing in the Commonwealth, but they can’t stop the horse from racing in Saturday’s Preakness. That is up to the officials in Maryland. Pimlico officials postponed the post position draw from Monday till Tuesday, but all indications are that he could still race this weekend. From The Baltimore Sun:
“Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, said he couldn’t comment on an open case in another state but said there’s no reason Medina Spirit can’t run in the Preakness. The Derby champion will have a blood sample taken for testing when he arrives in Maryland and would be tested after the Preakness if he finishes in the top three. Betamethasone is also a regulated drug in Maryland, meaning it can be used therapeutically but triggers a violation if it shows up in a race-day sample.”
He’s Got the Look
Like every egomaniacal supervillain, Baffert relishes the limelight in while accompanied by an extensive rap sheet. More importantly, the dude just looks like an evil Bond villain, and a bad one at that. Who is ever going to trust a fast-talker with silver hair and blue-tinted glasses with their money? Nobody, yet he was able to do just that at this year’s Derby. Bettors placed approximately $4.3 million in wagers on Mandaloun, which would have paid out nicely at 26-1. The Brad Cox horse will likely earn the title “Kentucky Derby 147 Champion,” without rewarding any of his backers.
The Villain Horse Racing Needs
Love them or hate them, every great story needs a great villain. Like Thanos, in Bob Baffert’s eyes he is the benevolent hero of horse racing, using the end to justify the means without considering the consequences. The unintended consequences may ruin the reputation of the sport’s greatest trainer. That’s a long-term problem for the sport, but in the short term, this fiasco has made this weekend’s Preakness Stakes must-watch television across the country. Love him or hate him, everyone will be watching.