Sport of Kings, ship of fools, or clown show

May 26, 2021

What happens if Medina Spirit actually won the Preakness

Is HISA the central governing body horse racing needs

Back in 2014 when Past the Wire was in its infancy, I wrote an article about the need for a central governing body, and one set of stringent clearly defined rules for everyone playing this game we love, the Sport of Kings or so it once was. You can read the article HERE and you will see I clearly called two things; a major shakeup like the Navarro and Servis indictments, and the formation of a government body to oversee racing if we didn’t clean it up ourselves. We are all familiar with HISA or the Horse Racing Safety and Integrity Act, aren’t we? I support it so I won’t say told you so. I will say it is the failure of our industry to get itself together and truly put the horse first that got them here.

Interestingly one could argue we even called the stable duel game idea. Love us, like us, hate us, or don’t care one way or the other, the fact remains we were and are ahead of the curve, and things we have spoken about in the past often come to the forefront. We have been saying cash less but win more for years. Today some offer it as a new and novel concept. If you’re talking about it, chances are we’ve already written about it. People have been calling for a central governing body for a long time. Maybe with HISA we will have or finally develop one.

Let us move to today. Everybody loves to shout how much they care about the horse, and how it is all about the horse. How many animals have most of these people actually helped or rescued? Personally I have lost count, both the number and money spent. It is not about money though, sadly it is about the ones you don’t get to not the ones you do. Those truly involved for the right reasons will understand, the rest don’t matter.

Betamethasone was discussed in detail on a recent Past the Wire podcast with renowned equine veterinarian Dr. Kathryn Papp. Dr. Papp has a wealth of knowledge and I learned a lot talking with her. You can listen to that show HERE. You can get her take on what this drug does, how it can be dangerous, and also what it does not do.

To summarize some of what I took from the conversation, betamethasone is commonly used to treat inflammation, including in inflammation in joints. It is also used to treat skin conditions. Once in the blood, and the most recent studies do say drugs do get into the bloodstream through skin in higher doses and in higher amounts than previously thought, it can potentially allow a horse to run with inflammation and not feel it and or for lack of a better term mask it, which can potentially lead to an accident, or even a fatality for horse or rider.

Because of this I assume, it is not allowed on race day. It is not a banned substance as many are saying, and maybe this is just semantics, but I don’t think so, it is banned on race day. It is allowed and used prior to race day, and how many days out depends on what state and jurisdiction you are running in. The problem with that is this; the drug’s effects can stay with the horse for up to two months. In most jurisdictions it is allowed much closer to race day than two months. Those are the rules. The fact horses metabolize drugs differently is an issue, but not the issue here. Even a trainer or DVM following the rules, is sending out a horse in accordance to the “rules” but with the effects of betamethasone in their system. Who are we protecting with that? The horse, jockey, trainer, field size or dollar? To me the answer is obvious, and we will come back to this but I have to say if it was the horse or rider, this drug would not be allowed far enough out that it cleared any horses system before racing. I think that is obvious unless you think Dr. Papp is wrong or doesn’t know what she is talking about. I don’t think that.

The way I read the main difference in rules regarding betamethasone between California and Kentucky is this. In California you get a fine and a suspension with both eligible for reduction given mitigating circumstances. The maximum suspension is 30 days. In Kentucky there is a fine and suspension for the trainer with the suspension as high as 30 days absent mitigating circumstances. The major difference which certainly plays big in the Medina Spirit case is this; there are penalties for the owner also. Disqualification and loss of purse absent of mitigating circumstances. I am in favor of owners being accountable for their horses along with the trainer. This will help prevent owners from using trainers who place their purse winnings in jeopardy. The sport needs this type of policing. I go a step further and think owners should face the same suspensions from running.

What I don’t favor is this. Different strokes for different folks, and that works both ways not just one. I also do not support changing the rules as we go along or applying them differently. I surely do not support anyone not being given due process or being adjudicated by social media, fans, lynch mobs, and especially not mainstream media or Saturday Night Live. The show hasn’t been funny in my opinion since I don’t know, the 70’s maybe?

If anything is funny in what just might be the former Sport of Kings today, and I am hard pressed to call anything in the game funny today it is this. The social media crowd who thinks because they were right about Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro they are automatically right about anyone who cheats, or even trains front runners who don’t quit or find another gear. Ironically many of the people calling for Bob Baffert’s head also call for the head of Brad Cox, who will be the beneficiary along with Mandaloun and his connections should there be a disqualification in the Kentucky Derby. You can’t make this up and reality is as they say stranger than fiction, and sometimes makes less sense.

Rules are rules. Rules in racing are not laws, nor do they automatically become civil torts. These are three different issues. If we don’t like the rules, or they don’t serve the game, fairly police the sport, or protect horses and riders we need to change them, not apply them to our whims or worse selectively enforce them.

In Kentucky the “rules” say you are entitled to a split sample in the case of a positive test. They say you have three days to request it. What they don’t say is after that how much time you have to get the split sample to a laboratory. As I read the rules in Kentucky they state the split sample must be sent out as expeditiously as possible. That is not a definitive date, and can easily be construed as ambiguous. Generally anything ambiguous in a contract, rule, law, etc., is ruled in favor of the party who did not write it. If you wrote it you should have made it clear. Crystal clear.

The connections of Medina Spirit as we all know have requested a split sample as they are entitled to do under the rules. I don’t think we can reasonably criticize anyone for exercising rights they are entitled to do. That is hypocritical, most would do the same thing in a parallel scenario. To my knowledge it has not been sent out yet, and we don’t know if it will be returned positive or negative. The horse, Bob Baffert, and Amr Zeden the owner, have all been judged and sentenced not just by social media, many fans and bettors, but also by Churchill Downs and NYRA, who recently entered into sort of a television partnership together. Just this past Saturday Fox televised both tracks’ cards from morning into the night.

I think Churchill Downs and NYRA both jumped the gun announcing suspensions prior to the split sample being returned and here is why. The split sample is a right of the trainer, a right often exercised in this situation by many trainers. Any ruling or penalty should come after the split sample is returned, that is the very reason for the split sample is it not? This gets way more complicated than that however. Bob Baffert is now prohibited from running any horses in the Belmont Stakes, or any supporting stakes on the Belmont Festival weekend, which includes the Met Mile and others. We all know he points for those events. Banning him now took away any urgency on his part to send the split sample in. If I am Baffert’s attorney, and granted this is just my opinion as my education stopped in the 8th grade, I’m saying alright everyone we stand ready to submit the split sample as expeditiously as possible as the rules state. One thing, you have already penalized my client, that has had an impact. What happens if the split sample comes back negative? In the absence of a time line to send it in, and already being “suspended” without the full process playing out, I’d want am answer to that question. Obviously it is a moot point if the split sample comes back positive as most believe it will. It does however open the door to discuss what the penalty will be now prior to the sample being sent out, as opposed to afterwards. Afterwards the trainer has zero leverage. Now, the rush to judgement and a poorly written ambiguous rule gives the trainer something to discuss. Mitigating circumstances.

We can only imagine what will happen if and when the split sample goes out, it comes back negative. We may have another paper towel shortage, there would be a lot of egg to wipe off. That is a big long-shot for sure, but hey this is horse racing. We don’t run the race on paper.

Who thinks NYRA bans Bob Baffert and essentially Medina Spirit had the colt won the Preakness? If it is all about the horse, sport, and integrity of the game everyone’s answer should be yes, of course they would have. If my timeline memory serves correctly, they announced the ban very shortly after the Linda Rice ruling, and after Medina Spirit checked in third in the Preakness. I always say coincidences are for romance novels. I don’t think the term suspension is a coincidence. I don’t think the term banned substance is a coincidence either. I also don’t think there should have been even a trace of betamethasone in Medina Spirit’s blood test, or that the matter should have been decided before the results of the split sample came back. I don’t think these type decisions should be made lightly, or because of what is in the host track’s best interest. I don’t think we should cater to outside entities. This is not supposed to be about money despite the fact most things are. This is supposed to be about the horse first, second and third. Everything comes after that. It is not a popularity contest or a headline.

The CHRB issued a statement they would wait until an official ruling before doing anything about Bob Baffert. While banned from NYRA and Churchill Downs, he won both stakes at Santa Anita over the weekend, one with an odds on horse we all expected to win, the other with a maiden who was good enough to win a stake for their first win. That is not an every day occurrence. While not a popular decision with many, it was probably the legally correct one. Again this is horse racing, Pimlico, where Bob was allowed to run Medina Spirit in the Preakness is owned by The Stronach Group, the owners of Santa Anita.

I have often said Churchill Downs waves a big stick in horse racing. Maybe even the biggest. This is another argument for a central governing body. They own the Kentucky Derby. It is their race to do with as they please. They can change from money won to points without anyone’s approval. Theoretically they can change the race to any age, sex or distance they want. Churchill Downs does what they feel is in the best interests of their shareholders. They are a public company. That is precisely what they are supposed to do, and who they are accountable to. It is not the sport, fans, bettors, owners, breeders, trainers, or anyone else. They can amend the rules of the Oaks or Derby to exclude anyone they like. They can find and implement any rule to exclude anyone. What happens if they ban anyone who has ever had a positive test in the Oaks or Derby? No one race track should have that much power.

Ron McAnally has been around a long time. He was one of the great John Henry’s trainers. His last positive test I believe was in 1996, and I believe it was for a category 4 violation. He recently had a horse test positive for Carboxy-Cannabidiol, a metabolite of cannabidiol. CBD is an unclassified drug in California, which means it is treated as a class 1, category A violation. In this case it will be recommended the violation be treated lightly, more like a class B category 3 violation as the CHRB is in the process of changing CBD to that status. The rider of the horse, Roses and Candy who won the race in question at Del Mar, was Geovanni Franco. He came forward and stated he used CBD. To my knowledge he did not say how, but a logical assumption would be through an ointment, creme or the like. I think we would all be hard pressed to conclude smoking marijuana could lead to a horse you rode testing positive for CBD regardless of how yellow your fingertips may be. So CBD can apparently pass to a horse and cause a positive test through a rider’s hands. The most recent studies I have read do support this theory, still sounds odd to me. I guess there would have had to be a nice amount of lotion on Geovanni’s hands to transfer a positive to a horse.

Moving right along we have a new whip rule in New Jersey. The rule imposed by the New Jersey Racing Commission for the 2021 season states that use of whips “except for reasons of safety” is prohibited. Riders objected, primarily for safety reasons, which sounds strange given the wording of the ruling. It goes deeper than that however. Horses are trained and taught to respond to the crop, stick, whip, whatever you want to call it. It definitely in my opinion is a safety factor. Given how we race today it also plays a big part in who wins and the other placings in a race. To my knowledge no jockeys had a say in this, and they should have had the most say. The crops of today are similar to nerf balls, and cause a pop, not pain to the horse. Further the stewards have always had the authority to call in and penalize any rider for abuse or excessive use of the whip thus meaning there is no necessitation for this rule whatsoever except to placate people who have zero interest in the survival of the Sport, let alone its reemergence. Monmouth opens Friday. Many jockeys are boycotting and won’t be accepting mounts until the rule is rescinded or modified. How that affects handle, attendance and everything else remains to be seen. What the ramifications are, if any at all for riders who ignore the boycott also remains to be seen. What we do know is rules that affect the safety of both riders and horses are being made without asking the people who are actually out there riding the horses.

This is how I feel about whip rules in general:

I said earlier coincidences are for romance novels and I did not think the timing of NYRA’s ban of Bob Baffert was an accident. It came on the heels of a Linda Rice ruling revoking her license for three years in addition to a fine for apparently paying NYRA employees for information and past performances on which horses were running in which races thus gaining an unfair advantage. The three year revocation is worse than it sounds. It can easily be a lifetime ban. She can apply after three years, but will have to answer yes to the question upon re-applying have you ever had a license suspended or revoked. She is still running horses and may be for a while. The order does not take effect until the findings and order is served. Until then Linda Rice is in good standing. Obviously she will appeal and I imagine fight for a suspension as opposed to a revocation. The difference is huge. A suspension is not a death sentence per se. A revocation would be. If Linda did what they say, I am not saying it is right, fair, or should happen. I will say I’d bet far worse goes on daily and that is no secret.

We are going on 10 years now that Rick Dutrow was given a harsh punishment and had his livelihood taken away. This ruling stood despite a former NYRA steward coming forward and stating the syringes found in Rick’s barn while he was in Kentucky were planted. We all saw Rick openly say he used winstrol, which at the time was legal. he also called a lot of people “babe.” They, whoever “they” actually are had everyone convinced Rick Dutrow had a mountain high pile of illegal drug violations. The fact is he had very few. Most of his violations were administrative. That didn’t matter. He was going to be the scapegoat used as an example to clean up the sport. How did that work out?

So much is how “they” say it. In no way is the following a political statement, or reflective of my personal political views. You want that you’ll have to ask me and I probably won’t tell you. What it is an illustration of how easily the pied pipers can lead the rats.

Trump is President:

Tragically another 50,000 people died from Covid today.

Biden is President:

We are making great progress, only 50,000 people died from Covid today.

Is HISA what we need? I don’t know. I do think it is a fair start, but ultimately I think we need more, probably a good deal more. No drugs, zero tolerance, clear, fair, equally enforced rules, and a sound foolproof way to enforce them. I hope HISA can start getting us there.

Remember, it doesn’t matter what we do or don’t do, or how we put on the show, just bet.

Sport of Kings, 50-1

Ship of Fools, 9-5

Clown Show, even money

Who you got?

Despite common ownership, all entries run uncoupled.

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

View Jon Stettin

“For a different and unique perspective on horse racing, I read Jonathan Stettin’s Past the Wire.” Mike Smith, Hall of Fame, Triple Crown winning jockey

Mike Smith View testimonials

Facebook