By Bill Finley
First across the wire in the 2021 GI Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit (Protonico) has been officially disqualified by the Kentucky Horse Racing (KHRC) Board of Stewards, which also handed trainer Bob Baffert a 90-day suspension and a $7,500 fine.
The news came via a short press release Monday from the KHRC, which also posted the ruling to its website.
Within a few hours of the announcement from the KHRC Churchill Downs officials issued a statement recognizing Mandaloun (Into Mischief) as the winner of the race.
“Today Churchill Downs recognizes Mandaloun as the winner of the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby and extends our congratulations to owner/breeder Juddmonte, trainer Brad Cox and jockey Florent Geroux,” the statement read. “Winning the Kentucky Derby is one of the most exciting achievements in sports and we look forward to celebrating Mandaloun on a future date in a way that is fitting of this rare distinction.”
Yet, recognizing Mandaloun, who crossed the wire second–a half-length behind Medina Spirit–as the winner might be a bit premature. Medina Spirit's connections have a number of avenues in front of them to fight Monday's decision and have vowed that they will do whatever it takes to reverse the disqualification.
“This is round one and we are going to fight this thing until the end,” owner Amr Zedan said. “Bob has my full support and backing. We're going to do whatever it takes to vindicate 'Medina' and make sure he is declared the official winner of the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby. We will see this through and do whatever it takes.”
The next step in the appeal process is to go before an administrative law judge. Should that decision not go their way, the Baffert team can then try their case through the court system. No matter what moves are made, the case is likely to drag on for some time, perhaps for a few years. In the matter of 1968 Kentucky Derby starter Dancer's Image, the only other horse disqualified from the Derby due to a drug positive, it took nearly four years for the case to come to a close, with Forward Pass officially declared the race winner.
Clark Brewster, an attorney representing Baffert and Zedan, issued a lengthy statement Monday in which he expressed his confidence that at the end of the day Medina Spirit will be the official winner of the Kentucky Derby.
“We are disappointed by the Commission's ruling, but not surprised,” he said. “This ruling represents an egregious departure from both the facts and the law, but the numerous public statements by KHRC officials over the last several months have made perfectly clear that Bob Baffert's fate was decided before we ever sat down for a hearing before the three stewards, one of whom is directly employed by Churchill Downs as the racing director at Turfway Park. We will appeal, and we will prevail when the facts and rules are presented to detached, neutral decision-makers.”
Medina Spirit tested positive for betamethasone, a corticosteroid, after the May 1 Derby. At first, Baffert denied that Medina Spirit had ever been given the drug, but changed his story a few days later when he said that the colt was treated for a skin condition with an ointment that contained betamethasone. Lawyers representing Baffert and Zedan sent a urine sample to Dr. George Maylin, director of the New York Equine Drug Testing and Research Laboratory, in an attempt to show that betamethasone was in fact in Medina Spirit's system because of the ointment and not because it had come through an injection. They said that Maylin confirmed that the drug came from the ointment, which, they argued was not a violation.
After more than nine months had gone by without any comment or updates from the KHRC, a hearing was held Feb. 14. There were no comments from the stewards Monday, but it appears they decided that it did not matter how, whether by an injection or through an ointment, the betamethasone got into Medina Spirit's system.
It was also noteworthy that Baffert was suspended for 90 days for the finding of betamethasone, which is a Class C drug. Kentucky rules call for a suspension ranging from zero to 10 days for Class C drugs. However, the official ruling notes that the Medina Spirit positive was Baffert's fourth medication violation over a span of 365 days, which is why the penalty was increased to 90 days.
As things now stand, Mandaloun is the Derby winner, giving trainer Brad Cox his first Derby win.
“Honestly, I have no real feeling or emotion,” Cox said. “I'm just hopeful that maybe something like pre-race testing can be done prior to the running of a race of this magnitude in the future. I'm not sure what would be so hard about figuring that out.”
Baffert's problems extend beyond Monday's ruling. He has been suspended for two years by Churchill Downs and, as things now stand, is not allowed to compete in the 2022 or 2023 runnings of the Kentucky Derby. He is also in the middle of a fight with the New York Racing Association, which is also attempting to ban him.
Medina Spirit died Dec. 6 after a workout at Santa Anita. The apparent cause of the death was a heart attack, but a necropsy did not reveal a definitive cause of death.