By Chris McGrath
This time, it's not just the Susans that have a black eye.
You'll forgive me a little hesitation before addressing the 146th running of a race that can seldom have been staged in so febrile a context. Two weeks ago, I was incautious enough in this column to hope for just a nice, boring Derby, after the rancour of 2019 and the dismal postponement of 2020. Then, last week, I asked why even his own industry had been so ungenerous to a trainer who had now won four of his seven Derbys with horses that had at various times changed hands for an aggregate $54,500.
Me and my big mouth, huh? But then I'm no different from anyone else. Every single member of our community will feel like he or she has something at stake in the latest contamination of its standing in the wider world: from our judgement, to our very livelihoods. By the same token, we all have a share in how we go about repairing matters.
Because this is not just a question of whether or not Bob Baffert can cogently secure exculpation. The merits of his case will be tested by due process. For the rest of us, the imperative will remain the same regardless of the outcome. We cannot keep missing our cue. If all we do is mutter resentfully, every time society turns up the spotlight, then we can't be surprised if the theatre gradually empties until they take off the show altogether.
True, some of Baffert's own peers have responded with candid vexation to the latest and most conspicuous fissure he has opened in perceptions of our sport. They have been irritated by his emotive attempts to depict himself as a victim of “cancel culture”, and to transpose fault from his own regime–which seems, on a charitable reading, at least to be curiously accident-prone–to a lack of regulatory discrimination.
Albeit Baffert has raised the bar, his profession includes many paragons of achievement who have never had so much as peppermint on a horse's breath. These tend to respect boundaries rather than push them. Yet even some who position themselves on the “pragmatic” end of the therapeutics spectrum are exasperated. They view Baffert's history of infringements not as inherently sinister but as tiresome and avoidable.
Some feel that even proceeding to Pimlico with Medina Spirit (Protonico) guarantees a lose-lose scenario both for his connections and for the sport as a whole. To be clear, The Stronach Group have handled an invidious position competently. They couldn't and shouldn't stop the horse running. Nor could they have made their position more accessible and coherent than by a) rightly stating that “we cannot make things up as we go along” while also b) stipulating with Baffert exhaustive pre-competition testing. But it's a horrible situation, all round, with the hapless horse transformed overnight from a symbol of hope to one of despair. If he is beaten, connections will have gained nothing from standing up for his right to run. And if he does win, well, it'll be interesting to hear what kind of reception he gets on returning to unsaddle–and, indeed, when entering the Belmont paddock with his trainer's third Triple Crown on the line.
As we've already suggested, however, the story has already left Baffert and Medina Spirit far behind. (Which is exactly what makes so many people mad at Baffert, even if they consider his horse a perfectly deserving Derby winner.) Predictably enough, the mainstream news agenda has hastened to combine this trauma with various others recently endured by our sport, too wearily familiar to require reprising here. Just as predictably, and just as promptly, apologists have complained of a parallel conflation, so that trainers concerned only for the welfare of their horses are tarred with the same brush as those who cheat brazenly with blood doping or steroids.
But you know what, that's exactly why people out there in Main Street can't tell the difference between, say, Christophe Clement and Rick Dutrow. What else can we expect, if people inside the business keep telling the lay audience that they just don't understand, and please to go away? The choice is clear: insist on our gray areas, or sacrifice them to a corporate clarity of purpose. As it is, what is the world beyond our parish supposed to make of professional associations litigating for what will inevitably be perceived (however unfairly, and however complex the reality) as their constitutional right to dope racehorses?
We cannot keep putting each new alarm back on “snooze”. It's only human for Baffert, in a corner like this, to be turning round the guns so that it's all someone else's fault: hyperregulation, clumsy veterinarians, whomever. But the rest of us have to do better than that. Whatever the merits of his own case, we're all in that same corner now. And we have to earn, really earn, a way out.
So for now forget all those picograms and thresholds, and whether Baffert is as innocent as he claims, or whether he's a little too reckless, or worse. The fact is that our whole culture, to this point, has enabled far more obviously egregious cases at every point of the compass: guys who are thriving because a) the worst that can happen is that your assistant gets a few days with his name on the racecard and b) too many investors would prefer a piece of a barn's inexplicable strike-rate than to admit that it's actually all too explicable.
Some stables won't even enter at particular tracks, or against particular trainers, because they know they won't be in a clean fight. Many of us, especially when patrons of Messrs. Servis and Navarro professed such amazed indignation, have remembered Captain Renault being “shocked, shocked” that gambling is taking place in Rick's Café. (He is, of course, promptly handed his winnings by a croupier.)
Let's not kid ourselves either that this is only happening at bush tracks, or that we can solve everything by turning Baffert into a pantomime villain. Just as he can't blame everyone else, nor can everyone else blame only Baffert. Do that, and we'll very soon discover how short a slip divides frying pan and fire.
In the end, Captain Renault comes good. But he needs the inspiration of high-principled Victor Laszlo, the one man in Casablanca whose conscience permits him to sleep well. So who, in our business, will step up for that role?
Well, again without presuming any judgement on Baffert himself, it was fascinating to see B. Wayne Hughes of Spendthrift yet again taking a lead. Hughes prides himself on not giving a damn what other people think, so long as he is satisfied that he is doing right. That attitude has not always endeared his rivals, even if they have largely ended up imitating his every move. And you can bet that nothing has panicked Baffert this week more than Spendthrift “hitting the pause button”.
Having always proudly plowed a different furrow from what the English know as “the Establishment”, Hughes has also been in the vanguard in facilitating microshare entry into elite racing. Quite clearly, he understands how the very survival of our sport no longer depends on the jousting of wealthy egos, but on popular engagement. And that requires us to go out there with absolutely nothing to hide.
If we can do that, then we might be granted the respect and time to solve our other problems: breakdowns, say, or what to do about the whip. (Besides, one of the key premises of hay, oats and water is obviously to prevent breakdowns.) But first we have to go into Main Street ready to show everyone, with undiluted honesty and pride, every single thing we do with these beautiful animals.
Oh, one more footnote. The biggest hole in this horse race may not be where everybody is looking. Because whatever Baffert may or may not have to explain, his peers have fallen badly short in presenting just three of the Derby field for the second Classic. If their regimes are really so wholesome, then they shouldn't be scared of what history tells us: that many a Preakness winner has left behind Derby defeat precisely because of a robustness that wasn't artificial.
It's all very well telling Baffert that he must turn out every pocket when he comes to a big race. But he might be entitled to wonder whether one or two of his rivals meanwhile have nothing to hide except their racehorses.