Bob Baffert suspended by Churchill Downs after Medina Spirit’s second optimistic drug check

Churchill Downs Racetrack suspended horse trainer Bob Baffert for two years just hours after attorneys revealed Wednesday that his Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit had failed a second drug test for the banned steroid betamethasone.

The suspension means that no horse trained by Baffert or by Bob Baffert Racing Stables can race at any track owned by Churchill Downs Incorporated through the conclusion of the 2023 Spring Meet at Churchill Downs.

That meet includes the Kentucky Derby, the first jewel in thoroughbred horse racing’s Triple Crown. Kentucky Horse Racing Commission officials have yet to rule on whether to overturn Medina Spirit’s victory in the Derby as a result of the two failed tests.

Bill Carstanjen, the CEO of Churchill Downs, cited Baffert’s prior history of failed drug tests by horses in announcing the two-year ban on the trainer, whose seven Derby wins are the most of any trainer.

Baffert has had five horses fail drug tests this year alone.

Carstanjen also took a shot a Baffert for floating the idea that Medina Spirit only had betamethasone in its system because of an anti-fungal ointment that was applied to the horse.

“CDI has consistently advocated for strict medication regulations so that we can confidently ensure that horses are fit to race and the races are conducted fairly,” Carstanjen said in a statement.

“Reckless practices and substance violations that jeopardize the safety of our equine and human athletes or compromise the integrity of our sport are not acceptable and as a company we must take measures to demonstrate that they will not be tolerated,” Carstanjen said.

Bob Baffert, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, stands near the track at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, April 28, 2021.

Bryan Woolston | Reuters

“Mr. Baffert’s record of testing failures threatens public confidence in thoroughbred racing and the reputation of the Kentucky Derby,” the CEO said.

“Given these repeated failures over the last year, including the increasingly extraordinary explanations, we firmly believe that asserting our rights to impose these measures is our duty and responsibility.”  

Baffert on May 9 revealed that Medina Spirit had tested positive for betamethasone, a steroid used for therapeutic purposes in horses, in a sample taken the day of its Derby win a week earlier. Baffert said 21 picograms of the drug were found in the same.

Although that drug can be legally used as a therapeutic in Kentucky on a horse, any trace of it on race day is grounds for disqualification if a second test confirms it was in the blood on that day.

On Wednesday, lawyers for Medina Spirit’s owner Amr Zedan and Baffert announced that a second test of a blood sample had also found betamethasone.

Clark Brewster, the attorney for the Zedan, told CNBC that officials are allowing the Medina Spirit team to have another lab analyze a third sample from the horse.

That test, Brewster said, could determine whether there are chemicals that would support Baffert’s claim that the betamethasone may have come from a topical ointment known as Otomax, and not from an injection.

Brewster noted that picogram is just a trillionth of a gram.

“Hopefully they will make a reasonable judgment,” Brewster said, referring to the review of the drug test results by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

“I think there will be unanimity on the subject that this is an infinitesimal amount that could not have affected the race,” the lawyer said.

Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal owns NBC and NBC Sports, which broadcast the Triple Crown races.

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