Initially, Baffert was publicly shocked and dismayed by the news. He insisted that no medication was allowed in his barn that could test positive. Assisted by his attorney, he later defended his innocence and subsequently offered an explanation that Medina Spirit had a skin infection which was being treated with a topical cream typically used to treat ear infections in dogs. That cream, now discovered in his barn, contained the same anti-inflammatory steroid Betamethasone for which Medina Spirit tested positive. The skin cream was supposedly used the day before racing. Baffert and his attorney claim that this must have been the source of the medication and that use as a skin cream would in no way enhance Medina Spirit’s performance. No one has yet been able to prove how use of a skin cream could produce twice normal acceptable blood levels.  

Rombauer Wins 2021 Preakness Stakes; courtesy Maryland Jockey Club

The Pimlico executives, who also own Santa Anita Racetrack, where Baffert trains in California, decided to allow Baffert a path to train and race in their prestigious Preakness Stakes. As per the information provided in press releases and media coverage, Baffert agreed to have Medina Spirit undergo 3 sequential blood tests at Pimlico. Baffert agreed to similarly tight scrutiny for a second Preakness entry, Concert Tour, and for an entry in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes for fillies, i.e. Beautiful Gift. The trainers of both Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie announced they were skipping the Preakness to potentially race in the Belmont Stakes.

Furthermore, Medina Spirit had all his major joints radiographed to confirm that there were no structural impediments to his competing. All 3 horses were under tremendous scrutiny pre- and post-race, and there were no indiscretions found. However, none of Baffert’s highly regarded entries won their race or performed to expected standards. This can happen in any race, at any racetrack, and is also potentially due to all the regulatory interruptions around the barn. Baffert stayed away from Pimlico and left all training to his assistant of many years, Jimmy Barnes. The Preakness, the 2nd and shortest of the Triple Crown races at 1-3/16 mile, was won by a new entrant, Rombauer, trained by Michael McCarthy, a former assistant to HOF Trainer Todd Pletcher and ridden by jockey Flavien Pratt, Medina Spirit finished 3rd, Concert Tour finished 5th, and Beautiful Gift 7th in each of their races.

Shortly after the Preakness Stakes was run, the New York Racing Association (NYRA), which hosts the third Triple Crown race 3 weeks later, the Belmont Stakes, announced that Baffert was indefinitely banned from training or racing any horses in New York. Both Hot Rod Charlie and Exclusive Quality decided to skip the Preakness, rest their horses, and prepare for the 1.5 mile Belmont Stakes, the third, longest, and most grueling race of the series. Just prior to the running of the Belmont Stakes it was announced that Medina Spirit’s 2nd split-blood sample returned a positive test for Betamethasone, again at twice acceptable blood levels.

This was the first in many years that Bob Baffert had no entries in any of the multiple, lucrative, and highly contested races during the entire Belmont Racing Festival weekend. There was an eerie feeling to much of the backstretch and media in that no one discussed the penalties looming over Baffert, an institutional icon. While Baffert is a thoroughbred racing super-star and public celebrity, was he going to be seen as the victim of what he initially claimed to be a ‘counter-culture’ attack on his credibility, or is he going to be next in the list of fallen sports heroes due to cheating?

Next up…The Belmont Stakes