by Bill Finley & Dan Ross
Medina Spirit (Protonico), the winner of this year's GI Kentucky Derby, died of an apparent heart attack following a five-furlong workout Monday morning at Santa Anita.
The incident happened after Medina Spirit completed a five-furlong workout in 1:01.40. The breeze took place at about 7:45 Pacific Time.
“I just heard. He had a heart attack,” owner Amr Zedan said. “It was quick and he didn't suffer. It's unfortunate. In a moment like this there is not much that we can do. All I can say is that he gave us the ride of our lives and brought everyone together. We are mourning this loss, Bob (Baffert), myself, our team and Johnny V., as well. We are all very sad.”
Through his attorney, trainer Bob Baffert issued the following statement Monday: “It is with great sadness that I am reporting Medina Spirit passed away today from a heart attack at Santa Anita following a workout. My entire barn is devastated by the news. Medina Spirit was a great champion, a member of our family who was loved by all and we are deeply mourning his loss. I will always cherish the proud and personal memories of Medina Spirit and his tremendous spirit. Our most sincere condolences go out to Mr. Amr Zedan and the entire Zedan Racing Stables family. They are in our thoughts and prayers as we go through this difficult time.”
California Horse Racing Board Equine Medical Director Jeff Blea said there were signs of trouble near the conclusion of the workout.
“He looked like he was struggling the last part, and the rider was pulling him up,” Blea said.
Blea added that by the time a track veterinarian reached Medina Spirit, the 3-year-old colt had already died.
It was Medina Spirit's second work since he finished second in the GI Breeders' Cup Classic.
“We had such high hopes for him and so many plans,” Zedan said. “We were going to go to the Saudi Cup and possibly to Dubai. We wanted to campaign him all next year. The last thing I expected was to hear something like this. It is God's will.”
Throughout Medina Spirit's racing career, Zedan has stood by Baffert and continued to do so Monday.
“We have a great team and Bob is an amazing friend and an amazing trainer,” he said. “This unfortunately happens sometimes. I have full confidence in my team and in Bob. Unfortunately, this happens.”
As per usual in California, Medina Spirit will now undergo a full necropsy examination. A panel of experts will also conduct a review of the fatality.
When asked if he believed there were any suspicious precipitating circumstances behind the sudden death, Blea responded in the negative.
“Absolutely not. We'll address this like we do all our fatalities, try to find out the reason for it and how to prevent it in the future,” Blea said.
“But at this point, there is nothing that's untoward that I'm concerned about.”
Monday's news was the latest and most tragic twist during a career filled with dizzying highs and lows.
Medina Spirit was sold for just $1,000 as a yearling and later for $35,000 as a 2-year-old at the OBS July Sale. After breaking his maiden in his lone start at two, Medina Spirit won the GIII Robert B. Lewis S. before finishing second in both the GII San Felipe S. and the GI Santa Anita Derby. Dismissed at 12-1, he led every step of the way to cross the wire a half-length in front in the Derby.
Afterwards, however, it was revealed that he had tested positive for the medication betamethasone. That led Churchill Downs to issue a two-year suspension to Baffert, which, as things now stand, will keep him out of the 2022 and 2023 Kentucky Derbies. The New York Racing Association has also attempted to ban Baffert. Its case against him has yet to be resolved. Late last week, attorney Craig Robertson issued a statement confirming that the positive was attributable to a topical ointment and not an injection.
Sudden cardiac death in racehorses is extremely rare.
In a 10-year period between 2007 and 2017 in California, 8.2% of all training and racing related fatalities were sudden deaths. From data collected between 2007 and 2013 in California, approximately one sudden death occurred per 9,000 starts, and about one sudden death per 160,000 training days.
According to Blea, blood, hair and urine samples will be taken from Medina Spirit as part of the CHRB's standard fatality review process. As part of the necropsy examination–which is often conducted the day of the sudden death–tissue samples will be taken from various organs, including the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys and brain. These tissue samples will be sent for a toxicological review, which could take anywhere between three to six weeks to process, say experts. In a very small percentage of cases, the horse in question suffers a rupture of the aorta or other large vessel, which will be evident during the necropsy examination. Once the necropsy examination is complete, the findings will be sent to a panel who will conduct their own post-mortem review of the fatality, looking at the broader circumstances leading up to the catastrophic injury, like the horse's regulatory history. Examples of these review panels' final reports can be read here.
Between 2011 and 2013, seven Bob Baffert trained horses died suddenly during training or racing. A subsequent CHRB report found that Baffert-trained horses during that period were significantly more likely to die from sudden death than non-Baffert trained horses, calling the difference “dramatic.” The report noted that the horses had been administered thyroxine–a thyroid hormone used to treat hypothyroid conditions–and that use of thyroxine is “concerning in horses with suspected cardiac failure.”
However, because the drug had been administered to all horses in Baffert's care at that time, the use of thyroxine “does not explain why all the fatalities occurred,” the report found.
Baffert subsequently explained that he had stopped using the drug.
Predictably, PETA issued a statement Monday lashing out at the sport and urged that Baffert be banned.
“It's premature to say that Medina Spirit died of a heart attack or what the true cause of his fatal collapse was, given that many of trainer Bob Baffert's horses have suddenly dropped dead,” the statement read. “Seven of Baffert's horses died mysteriously during a 16-month period that was suspiciously linked to his reckless and routine habit of administering the powerful hormone thyroxine to horses without thyroid conditions. Baffert has continued to be embroiled in drug controversies since then, including when Medina Spirit tested positive for drugs in the Kentucky Derby. All of Medina Spirit's veterinary records must be seized, and a thorough investigation must be conducted. Baffert's attorneys must not be allowed to control the narrative. PETA urges Santa Anita and Del Mar officials to bar Baffert, pending the outcome of an investigation and a necropsy.”