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    Bob Baffert’s extended punishment is horse racing’s latest unforced error
    • July 7, 2023

    I love horse racing. Chances are good you also love racing or you might not be reading this column. It’s safe to say that anyone who has a keen interest in the sport hopes the decision makers are spot on with their rulings.

    Sad to say, racing’s hierarchy again has shot itself in the foot. One bad decision after another continues to plague a sport that at one time was one of the nation’s top attractions. Now it can’t get out of its own way.

    Churchill Downs Inc.’s decision to extend trainer Bob Baffert’s two-year suspension, which originally was scheduled to end Monday, through the end of 2024 is another example of a sport gone wrong. It’s not based on merit, but rather a vendetta against the face of horse racing.

    CDI is upset that Baffert won’t beg forgiveness and holds a grudge against the Hall of Fame trainer because he cost the company money in attorney fees by fighting his case in court.

    “Vindictive. Personal attack. Three years for a legal medication overage is not justice,” an industry insider told me via text this week.

    This insider is a part-time horse owner who has no professional connection to Baffert. His opinion is based solely on the facts as he sees them.

    This all started when Medina Spirit, who died from an apparent heart attack following a workout at Santa Anita in late 2021, won the 2021 Kentucky Derby and then tested positive for betamethasone, a legal anti-inflammatory that is not permitted on race day, in a post-race drug test. CDI banned Baffert from all of its race tracks for two years after a second sample of the post-race test also came back positive. Nine months later, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission stripped Medina Spirit of his victory and made runner-up Mandaloun the official winner.

    Baffert initially maintained innocence, claiming Medina Spirit was never treated with betamethasone. He made comments he later said he regretted and then disclosed that the horse had not been injected with the drug but instead had been treated for a skin condition with a topical ointment that contains the corticosteroid.

    The case has been hung up in the courts for more than two years, but Baffert paid his dues and everyone thought the ordeal was over this week. Guess again. Remember, this is a sport that is its own worst enemy.

    It wasn’t enough that 12 horses died at Churchill Downs during its spring meet, forcing the company to move racing to Ellis Park. Instead of the country focusing on the Kentucky Derby itself, the vast majority of attention was negative because of the breakdowns. Maybe CDI needed a scapegoat in the aftermath. Who better than Baffert, who has more than his share of critics on social media?

    CDI, in announcing the continuation of the suspension this week, cited Baffert’s refusal to admit guilt and peddling “a false narrative concerning the failed drug test of Medina Spirit.” But isn’t this America? Isn’t Baffert allowed to defend himself? If Baffert believes he was treated unfairly, he’s entitled to that opinion. As much as CDI wants to control the sport, it can’t regulate how a person feels.

    I’m not excusing the fact that 21 picograms of betamethasone were found in Medina Spirit’s bloodstream. It was a Kentucky rule at the time that it was not allowed on race day in any amount and CDI was within its rights to suspend Baffert, but if anyone believes the colt won the Kentucky Derby because of those 21 picograms, I’ve got some oceanfront property in Death Valley I’d like to sell.

    And here’s the kicker: If Medina Spirit won the Derby today with the same amount of betamethasone in his blood, it wouldn’t be an issue. The new national rules via the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority allow for that level of medication on race day.

    I find it interesting that CDI, the same company that let two historic race tracks – Hollywood Park and Arlington Park – fall by the wayside, is worried about the integrity of horse racing. Didn’t CDI also rush to judgment and suspend trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. without proper cause after two of his horses died? Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? Joseph was reinstated almost two months later when no wrongdoing was uncovered.

    CDI, in its original ruling against Baffert in May 2021, said the trainer’s suspension would be evaluated when completed and that he must avoid future drug positives. Baffert has had no infractions since Medina Spirit and CDI, in its latest statement, said it will re-evaluate his status at the conclusion of 2024.

    We can hardly wait. After this week’s bombshell, anything’s possible.

    Follow Art Wilson on Twitter @Sham73

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    ​ Orange County Register