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Banning Baffert a bold declaration

by BRYCE MILLER SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE | June 3, 2021 at 2:28 a.m.

Horse racing needed this moment. Not the part where the face of its sport who just set its most prestigious record on the most storied track in its crown jewel race faces near certain and historic disqualification.

Trainer Bob Baffert is likely to be stripped of his unmatched seventh Kentucky Derby victory at some point after a split-sample test for Medina Spirit confirmed the presence of a banned race-day substance.

In a stunning and stinging rebuke, Churchill Downs announced Baffert has been banned from racing's mecca for two years. That means the earliest the Hall of Fame icon could find himself contending in another Kentucky Derby is 2024.

Why in the four-legged world would the sport need a stain so public and painful?

Racing remains in a constant fight for credibility and for a meaningful sense of integrity and fair play. The move by Churchill Downs -- not simply to say but to show that no one lives above the rules -- felt like horse racing flipped on its lid.

A second positive test for betamethasone, whether defined as performance-enhancing or not, pushed Medina Spirit to the brink of becoming just the second drug-related disqualification of a Derby winner, joining Dancer's Image in 1968.

They've run the Derby 147 times, the longest uninterrupted sporting event in America. That amounts to very, very rare and uncomfortable company.

Shock waves surged not solely from the track's decision, but the white-hot words behind it. Consider the fastball to the ribs included in the statement from Bill Carstanjen, the CEO of Churchill Downs.

"Reckless practices and substance violations that jeopardize the safety of our equine and human athletics or compromise the integrity of our sport are not acceptable and as a company we must take measures to demonstrate they will not be tolerated.

"Mr. Baffert's record of testing failures threatens public confidence in thoroughbred racing and the reputation of the Kentucky Derby. Given these repeated failures over the last year, including the increasingly extraordinary explanations, we firmly believe that asserting our rights to impose those measures is our duty and responsibility."

Reckless practices.

Extraordinary explanations.

This was not a walk-through of reasons anchoring the decision. This was a public flogging of Baffert's already bruised and battered reputation. It was, deserved or not, a takedown of the sport's biggest star.

Though the track stopped short of saying Medina Spirit would surrender his Derby win, the continuing investigation language no doubt served as due-diligence bubble wrap as the lawyers prepare to line up in the wake.

Whispers around backside barns about Baffert being above racing's tough-to-pinpoint, trickier-to-compare rules persisted for years. Still, sorting jealousy about his wild success from potentially awkward truths seemed sticky.

The whole of it, at least in the minds of those at Churchill Downs, became too much to ignore.

Baffert has been involved in five drug violations in the year leading up to Medina Spirit's tainted Derby. Without getting into the dizzying science of 25 picograms per milliliter of betamethasone, the split-sample result, just know that the reading exceeds the initial positive.

That left us with this: The decision by Churchill Downs felt a bit like the Vatican banning the pope. That comes after Baffert being suspended across New York, ahead of the Belmont Stakes.

After too much hand slapping and parades of tissue-paper statements, racing had yet to consistently and truly show its teeth in defense of competitive principles.

Churchill Downs, it seems, weighed short-term pain and public-relations injury against a long-term defense of a sport facing an incredibly uncertain future.

In the end, this might amount to so much dust in the horse-racing wind. Then again, perhaps it will go down as one of those darkest-before-the-dawn moments.

If Baffert avoided swift and meaningful punishment after a second, confirmed test result on the biggest stage in the biggest race, everyone else in barns across America would hear one thing.

There are rules. But only for some.

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