“NO IDEA WHAT THE HELL HE IS TALKING ABOUT”

Medina Spirit
Medina Spirit held off Mandaloun to win the Kentucky Derby. Photo Coady Photography/Churchill Downs.

It’s Preakness week, so you expect some strangeness. But the events of Sunday and Monday beggar the mind’s ability to fathom.

If your bingo card had Bob Baffert, cancel culture, betamethasone, Donald Trump, and temporary restraining order on it, congratulations! You’re the biggest of big winners.

Under normal circumstances, you might read that sentence and say, “I have no idea what the hell he is talking about.”

Which, as it happens, are the exact words Association of Racing Commissioners International President Ed Martin said (in a statement) in response to Baffert’s… well, weird…  interview with Fox News.

In a Monday morning interview on the station, in an effort to explain the positive test for the corticosteroid betamethasone incurred by Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, Baffert opined, “This America is different. It was like a cancel culture kind of a thing.”

On social media a lot of people were thinking cancel culture – specifically, canceling Baffert’s trainer’s license and upcoming trip to Baltimore – might be a very good idea, indeed. But mostly they were trying to muddle through the explanations, which included Baffert’s claiming he did not know what betamethasone does, a curious claim for a trainer who had gotten a betamethasone positive just a handful of months earlier.

Speaking of trying to navigate strange statements, former President Donald Trump took a brief respite from settling political scores to share his opinion on l’affaire Baffert. Parenthetically, the former President doesn’t seem to know much about horse racing, and if the stories are true, he’d have to be on the short list of worst Thoroughbred owners of all time.

Regardless…

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“So now even our Kentucky Derby winner, Medina Spirit, is a junky,” the erstwhile Commander-in-Chief said in a strange, brief statement. “This is emblematic of what is happening to our Country.”

Except it’s not. It’s not emblematic of anything other than Bob Baffert’s ongoing problem staying on the right side of the rules. In fact, this is the third time in a bit over a year that a Baffert trainee has popped a positive test following a strong performance in a Grade 1 contest.

Last May Charlatan came back positive for lidocaine after winning a division of the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby (he ultimately was not DQed, though Baffert was fined for the violation). Four months later, Gamine got a betamethasone positive and was disqualified after finishing third in the Kentucky Oaks. And now this.

It’s enough to make Bob Baffert throw up his hands to the sky and plaintively wonder why this keeps happening to him. Which, one supposes, is one possible interpretation.

It’s also made a lot of other people run out of patience with a guy who’s either a bad actor or very careless or extraordinarily unlucky or a victim of a strange conspiracy (cancel culture perhaps?). Take your pick.

Of course, this being horse racing, the relentlessly cynical and opportunistic saw and seized the opportunity to score cheap points.

Churchill Downs immediately pounced, with a statement that it “will not tolerate” Baffert’s bad behavior and would prohibit him from entering horses at the track. That “bold” statement would probably have more meaning if either side had skin in the game, but Baffert’s made exactly 12 starts at Churchill in 2020-21 out of 453 starters. So, preening for the crowd.

And the Jockey Club jumped into the fray, too, because, well, why not, right? In a “more in sorrow than in anger” statement, the company declared that those who dare oppose them on the wisdom or desirability of federal oversight of racing drug rules must be dolts who “don’t want better regulation.”

Of course, all of this puts the squeeze on the Maryland Jockey Club: let Baffert run Medina Spirit in the Preakness and incur the wrath of social media and of animal rights activists? Or prevent him from entering and fight it out in court? Baffert’s attorney, Craig Robertson, said he would seek a temporary restraining order to force the track to let him in if it sought to bar him.

The MJC took arguably the path with the biggest downside, pushing back the Preakness draw from Monday at noon to Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. It’s a move unlikely to generate much new information but certain to keep the controversy brewing.

By late afternoon Monday, the company hadn’t said anything one way or the other. But it had permitted Baffert to enter Beautiful Gift in Friday’s Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes.

Baffert has legitimate due process and equal treatment arguments in his favor. Regardless, having spent the afternoon in conversations with people ranging from “I’m not 99% in favor of letting Baffert run; I’m 100% in favor of it” to “They can’t just roll over and let him run,” I feel pretty confident that it’s a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation for the folks in Maryland.

Ultimately, Bob Baffert’s isn’t a cancel culture problem, it’s a “drugs I say I don’t use keep ending up in my horses” problem.

And when that problem manifests itself in Grade 1 events – most especially the Triple Crown races – then it’s fair to say that racing has a Bob Baffert problem.

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