By T. D. Thornton
The legal teams for the trainer and owner of GI Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit (Protonico) jointly issued statements after 6:00 p.m. Friday stating that long-awaited split-sample testing has finally been completed on the colt's urine that “definitively confirmed” and has “scientifically proven” that the type of betamethasone that showed up in his post-race positive test is the type that comes from a topical ointment and not via an intra-articular injection.
The distinction is important to trainer Bob Baffert and owner Zedan Racing Stables (Amr Zedan) because they believe the proper adjudication of the betamethasone overage hinges on how it was administered to Medina Spirit.
In the wake of the positive findings, they claimed that Medina Spirit was treated with the betamethasone-containing ointment Otomax as late as Apr. 30 (the day before his Derby win) to help deal with a skin lesion. They have denied that the colt's joints were ever treated with the injectable form of that drug.
“The betamethasone in an injection is betamethasone acetate. The betamethasone in the topical ointment is betamethasone valerate. Only betamethasone acetate is addressed and regulated in the rules of racing in Kentucky. Thus, the presence of betamethasone valerate in Medina Spirit, which resulted from a topical ointment, is not a rules violation,” W. Craig Robertson, Baffert's lead attorney, stated in a press release.
Robertson continued, citing findings from the New York Equine Drug Testing and Research Laboratory's director, George Maylin:
“Dr. Maylin's testing not only confirmed the presence of betamethasone valerate, but also the absence of betamethasone acetate. This should definitively resolve the matter in Kentucky and Medina Spirit should remain the official winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby.”
Early Friday evening, TDN asked Marc Guilfoil, the executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC), if his agency could confirm the findings that were announced by Medina Spirit's connections.
“I haven't seen it, so we can't confirm anything,” Guilfoil said via phone.
When asked if a finding of betamethasone from an ointment and not an injection would change anything related to how Medina Spirit's overage of betamethasone would be handled, Guilfoil said, “We cannot comment on an ongoing investigation.”
Clark Brewster, an attorney representing Zedan, stated in a press release that the new finding should change the trajectory of how the case gets settled.
“The KHRC has steadfastly enacted rules relating to corticosteroid joint injection and have drawn a bright-line rule that no injections are permitted within 14 days of a race,” Brewster stated. “Now there is zero doubt that the 14-day rule some thought might have been violated by the earlier less-specific testing is revealed as premature judgment. That groundless accusation is without scientific merit.”
TDN asked Guilfoil if Robertson's and Brewster's interpretations of the KHRC rule were correct, and whether or not the rules relating to the Class C violation for betamethasone in Kentucky made any distinction pertaining to how the substance got inside a horse.
“I can't comment on it. I don't have a rule book in front of me, and anyway it would be a question for our lawyer. We're in litigation, and we can't comment on ongoing litigation,” Guilfoil said.
Guilfoil was referring to the June 7 civil complaint Medina Spirit's connections filed against the KHRC that forced the agency to turn over the colt's post-race urine sample to the New York lab for independent testing.
Robertson's statement read, in part: “In other words, it has now been scientifically proven that what Bob Baffert said from the beginning was true–Medina Spirit was never injected with betamethasone and the findings following the Kentucky Derby were solely the result of the horse being treated for a skin condition by way of a topical ointment–all at the direction of Medina Spirit's veterinarian.”
Eight days after the Derby, on Sunday, May 9, Baffert first disclosed the betamethasone positive at a press conference outside the barn where Medina Spirit was stabled at Churchill Downs. In doing so, he was getting out in front of the official announcement that would come later by the KHRC.
But Baffert didn't actually bring up the possibility that an ointment had triggered the positive until two days later, on Tuesday, May 11.
At first, on May 9, Baffert chose to implicate circumstances as the hazy, underlying culprit in the case (“I don't know what is going on with the regulators…. It's a complete injustice…. It's getting worse, and this is something that has to be addressed by the industry…. [This is] the biggest gut punch in racing for something that I didn't do”).
But as TDN's Bill Finley reported when Baffert's legal team put out a press release two days later implicating the ointment, “Baffert reversed course after declaring emphatically earlier in the week that the horse had never been treated with betamethasone. The trainer now says that he was not aware until [May 10] that the ointment in question, called Otomax, contained betamethasone. Betamethasone is clearly listed as an ingredient in Otomax on the box containing the drug.”
When asked at that time by TDN how a veterinarian could have given the horse Otomax so close to the most important horse race in America without knowing it could result in a drug positive, Robertson replied, “That's a question you're going to have to ask the veterinarian. I don't want to be quoted as throwing the veterinarian under the bus either. Listen: I don't know the answer to that question. I just don't.”
Although Medina Spirit's veterinarian was once again alluded to in the Dec. 3 statements, neither Baffert nor Zedan has publicly named that doctor, nor have they addressed why the Otomax was administered so close to the Derby in the first place.
The fallout from the betamethasone overage–which hasn't even resulted in a KHRC hearing yet, let alone any official ruling–has been costly to Baffert (in terms of being banned by some tracks) and to the sport (in terms yet another crisis that delivers an outsized hit to the game's public image).
The gaming corporation that owns Churchill Downs has barred Baffert from competing at its portfolio of tracks for two years, and none of his A-list 2-year-olds, including likely champion juvenile Corniche (Quality Road), are being allowed to accrue 2022 Derby qualifying points to get into the race Baffert has won seven times.
Baffert has also been barred from competing at the New York Racing Association (NYRA)'s tracks, but in July he secured a preliminary injunction in the courts that still allows him to race there until that lawsuit is resolved in full.
Although his ruling-off by NYRA came eight days after Medina Spirit's betamethasone positive was first made public, NYRA has claimed that its banishment of him has more to do with his pattern of equine drug positives: In the 12 months prior to Medina Spirit's finding from the Derby, four other Baffert trainees also tested positive for medication overages, two of them in Grade I stakes.
Baffert's attorneys have claimed throughout the ordeal that he's a victim in this case.
“Since May, Mr. Baffert has been the subject of an unfair rush to judgment,” Robertson stated in Friday's release. “We asked all along that everyone wait until the facts and science came to light. Now that it has been scientifically proven that Mr. Baffert was truthful, did not break any rules of racing, and Medina Spirit's victory was due solely to the heart and ability of the horse and nothing else, it is time for all members of racing to come together for the good of the sport. Mr. Baffert has been a tremendous ambassador for the sport throughout his 46-year Hall-of-Fame career and he has every intention of continuing to do so.”
Brewster stated that “Zedan is proud to have stood by Bob and is ecstatic that Medina Spirit will receive the honor of his great victory.”