Since the FBI announced in 2020 that their years-long federal investigation into cheating allegations in horse racing had caught admitted “doper” Jorge Navarro, suspected “doper” Jason Servis and a host of other co-conspirators, the lines separating these criminals and most of the rest of the industry's participants with largely minor legal drug positives have been significantly blurred.
Fast forward to the 2021 Kentucky Derby, a full 14 months after Navarro and Servis were arrested and charged with federal conspiracy charges related to drugging of their horses, social media erupted with rumors that Medina Spirit had tested positive for a “banned substance.” The information leaked just days after his victory and seemingly before the colt's trainer, Bob Baffert, had been notified there was a post-race positive.
From that time until now, much of the information that has trickled out has come mostly from speculation or been based on half truths and information twisted to suit a negative agenda. Rarely have details involving Medina Spirit been based on fact. Factor in the press tour Bob Baffert went on defending himself and his position that nothing nefarious was in play–for better or worse–and the perfect storm had developed.
Baffert's record as a trainer–which by industry standards has been cleaner, safer and better than most–was attacked, twisted and manipulated. His personal life–especially his wife and children–came under an all-out assault and was subject to a sea of the most horrific hate imaginable. None of which had anything to do with a post-race positive of a legal therapeutic medication in the Kentucky Derby.
My history with Bob Baffert is well-documented and I haven't always been his biggest fan. However, I knew, in all likelihood, the people saying those things had never met the man. Strangers unconcerned by what it actually means to be a “doper” or “cheater” hurled those epithets as if they actually knew him not only as a person, but also as a trainer.
That said, my disdain for the behavior of his harshest critics is clear and I continue to have the same questions. What is the definition of a cheater? What does it mean?
In what has been one of the most bizarre scenes I've ever witnessed, racing media, political actors, paid social media trolls, disgruntled bettors, along with powerful horsemen's groups and others have perpetuated or fostered a false “Lance Armstrong” narrative about Baffert. They compare Medina Spirit's overage of a legal therapeutic medication to actual blood doping and cheating. I don't really understand why, though I have my suspicions, and for the life of me I cannot fathom how he became the worst thing about horse racing.
Perhaps if we define what a “cheater” or “doper” is, reckless and uninformed attacks on trainers would stop. Educating the media and public on what constitutes cheating versus what is an unintentional overage of a therapeutic medication might actually be a positive development for horse racing. Instead, the industry sits idly by as shows like Saturday Night Live call betamethasone, a medication the industry allows and regulates, to be portrayed as a performance enhancing anabolic steroid. There is never any industry pushback on false narratives.
We have heard from racing's leadership organizations and also from the federal government that untestable drugs may be in use daily. This may be true, although we have yet to see any proof of it up to this point. In the meantime, we have allowed anti-horse racing activists and those who want to end horse racing altogether to spew damaging lies and perpetuate false narratives. These extremists don't hold everyone to the same standards. In fact, some trainers with multiple significant violations seem to get a pass, while others are vilified.
What do I mean by not holding everyone to the same standards? For example, are multiple class 4C positives (e.g. betamethasone) as harmful as one Class 2 (e.g. metformin) positive? Is it a recency equation? If so, are multiple class 4C positives more harmful to both the horse and the image of racing in the public eye than one Class 2 positive? Are we certain that class 4C positives are
“masking” more powerful drugs like EPO, as some allege, and if that's the case, where is the science to support that? Where did this narrative originate? Even more confusing to me is why we even have classifications if we are going to lump all positives into the “doping” narrative? What purpose do the classifications serve, if not to protect the horse and integrity of the game in general?
For years, many of the industry's participants, including myself, have been begging the decision makers for uniform rules and penalties in all racing jurisdictions. This would certainly solve the double-standard issue. It is a daunting task for sure, but certainly one worth the effort from industry leaders–those actually in a position to be heard and effect change in the best interests of the industry. So why hasn't it happened? We have literally had decades to get our ducks in a row and those with the most strength, power, and influence have continued to bury their heads in the sand, or alternatively, added fuel to the fire that is swiftly burning down our industry.
That's not to say all leaders have ignored the issues.
In California, for example, horses are now routinely subject to the most exhaustive pre-race medication and soundness exams in the country. Out-of-competition and thorough testing has become standard and, in rare cases, trainers are being cited for drug overages in workout tests. Is there any other jurisdiction in the country that demands the same strict level of oversight and protocols that California does? If there is, I certainly don't know about it.
California doesn't get sufficient credit from the industry in this area. Critics appearing more concerned with field size than the safety of horses bang the loudest drum to drown out the state's accomplishments. We know equine safety can only help to grow field sizes, as well as, positive public perception. Again, racing industry leadership–or a lack thereof–has played a major role in getting us to this point.
Social media, mainstream and horse racing media, and “experts”, who harbor their own animosity for individuals and the industry, have taken us to a very dark place. Anonymous accounts on social media aim to destroy who and what they don't like. Anyone who presents a rational argument supported with facts is labeled an apologist or far worse. I personally know people who have received death threats. Others have been told they've had background checks run on them. Many have had profane slurs hurled at them. Some of these folks shouting the same vitriol every day are provided cover and support by leadership groups and members of the media who claim to be impartial and to want what's best for the industry. Attacks on owners, who have for decades lost their money with a smile on their face, have ramped up, as well. I will never be convinced this is a good strategy in the short or long run, yet here we are, with many passionate and well intentioned owners accused of being complicit criminals. Interesting to note that the attackers usually have their own set of immoral behaviors that fly under the radar, but hypocrisy is in full view in 2022.
I don't know where this all ends, but I believe if we can't answer the simplest of questions, like what defines a cheater, or work to achieve uniform rules and regulations throughout the industry, then we are doomed. Change is needed, but we can't allow uninformed critics and activists, who would love nothing more than the collapse of racing to win.
The same standards need to be applied equally for all, in every jurisdiction, from coast to coast. In California, the lessons learned over the past few years have been plentiful. To the racing associations' credit they actually did something–many things–to help the horses and the industry as a whole. Meanwhile, virtually every other jurisdiction continues the status quo while hoping that the frenzy surrounding Bob Baffert will distract from their own breakdown rates and medication violations. Oddly enough, some states have almost no medication violations. Other states should learn from California's mistakes and implement the changes they made to move the industry in a positive direction for a change.
Bob Baffert isn't horse racing's problem, no matter how many times anonymous trolls armed with hatred and half-truths say so on Twitter. Cue the mob.