They call thoroughbred racing the sport of kings. The horses, however, are nothing more than serfs.
The pageantry of the track is often spectacular to behold. The historic twin spires of Churchill Downs look down on the oval home of the Kentucky Derby, America’s most famous horse race.
On the first Saturday in May, the ordinary railbird fans are replaced by high society, patrons wearing their Sunday finery, often accented by expensive jewelry and hats that are difficult to describe.
They will sip on mint juleps, the official drink of the Derby and probably order more than one. The infield will be jammed with thousands of ordinary bettors, more than a few of them drunk and disorderly.
It is some show.
And what of the stars of the show, the horses?
They’re on the backside of the track, snug in their barns, nibbling on some oats, maybe some grass, and getting shot up with drugs to make them run faster.
Wait. What? Drugs?
You bet. It is the hushed-up scandal of the industry and it brought down the last winner of this famous race.
Bob Baffert is a Hall of Fame trainer, the man who beamed with pride as his horse, Medina Spirit, won the 2021 Derby. It was the seventh time a Baffert horse had finished first in the Derby, a spectacular record.
There was, however, a problem. A banned drug, tamethasone, showed up in Medina Spirit‘s post-race test. It was the same drug found in Gamine, 3-year-old filly who finished third in the 2020 Kentucky Oaks. Interestingly, Gamine was also trained by Baffert whose horses have failed 30 drug tests in the four decades.
Churchill Downs officials were not amused at that record and slapped the trainer with a two-year ban. A similar punishment is pending with the New York Racing Association.
This is a big deal because trainer and owners make huge paydays in this industry. The horses? They get to run fast and faster, hoping to avoid the whips that jockeys carry with them in every race.
Baffert was outraged at the proprietors of the Derby and is threatening to sue, claiming his horses should not be barred from running in Kentucky. He wants compensatory and punitive damages, as well. Churchill Downs did not fold under the threat and this unpleasantness could be headed for court.
Meanwhile, there are no more races for Medina Spirit. The erstwhile Derby champion died of an apparent heart attack following a timed workout at Santa Anita race track last month, the same track where 23 horses died 2020 and 20 others died last year.