Drug-Pushing Cheaters Pushed One Racetrack Gambler Away

It takes a lot to blunt my enthusiasm for the Sport of Kings. I’ve been going to the racetrack since I was a boy and have been a keen student of the game for decades.

But this whole Bob Baffert scandal is taking me to a dark place.

Baffert has been the face of the sport for years. He has a sun-kissed, Hollywood look and a sweet-talking, wise-cracking charm that’s entranced well-heeled thoroughbred owners and the press alike. And he has -- for now, at least -- trained more Kentucky Derby winners than anyone in history.

The seventh, which came 13 days ago when a cheap, undersized colt named Medina Spirit out-finished a wave of challengers in the stretch, has been cast in a cloud of controversy ever since word surfaced over the weekend that the horse had failed a post-race drug test.

Drug-Pushing Cheaters Pushed One Racetrack Gambler Away

Kentucky has strict rules regulating the drug, a steroid known as betamethasone that’s typically used to treat joint inflammation, and if a second blood sample confirms the findings of the first, Medina Spirit will be disqualified from the race.

Baffert has offered up a dizzying array of responses since he called a Sunday press conference to reveal the news -- everything from a flat-out denial to the possibility that the drug got into the horse’s system through an ointment that was applied to treat a skin condition.

The problem, though, is that medication violations have been piling up on Baffert at an alarming pace. Several of his top horses, including the brilliant filly Gamine and the speedy colt Charlatan, have failed drug tests over the past year.

Many industry insiders, in their zeal to defend the sport from its most-ardent critics, are quick to argue that these violations have generally been considered minor. The incidents, they say, are nothing like the Justice Department probe into trainers who were caught on wiretaps discussing the use of “red acid” and other dangerous drugs.

And perhaps they’re right, but I had a conversation with an old, trusted industry source of mine this week that went in a very different direction.

When I had first met this guy over a decade ago, he was incredibly passionate about the sport -- a razor-sharp handicapper who had started to buy and race thoroughbreds too. He tasted success at the highest level, winning stakes races at major tracks across the country.

But in so doing, he told me he saw things that made him uncomfortable: the way that many top trainers were doling out drugs and cutting corners to squeeze more run out of their horses and gain an edge over their rivals.

And he came to a conclusion that brought him great pain. He needed to either hand his horses over to the cheaters to have a shot at winning at a reasonable clip or he needed to get out of the game.

He opted for the latter. For the first time in two decades, he told me, he doesn’t own a single racehorse.

Now, maybe he has this wrong or is overstating how bad things are. Or maybe the new federal regulatory oversight body will start weeding this stuff out soon. But I don’t know. He’s a pretty astute guy and he had a good window into how top racing outfits operate and he’s not one normally for hyperbole.

He told me one more thing, too. His level of trust in the integrity of the sport is so low at this point that he barely even bets the races anymore.

He’s not wagering on the Preakness Stakes this Saturday, he said.

What’s there to bet on anyways? A couple of Baffert horses, including the tainted Derby winner, going up against a bunch of nondescript types? Let Baffert win again. Whatever.

I’ll pass too.

(David Papadopoulos, a senior editor at Bloomberg News, is a voter in the thoroughbred industry’s Eclipse Awards. He has been publishing his Triple Crown picks for the past decade.)

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