Medina Spirit: A Legacy of Change?

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On the morning of Monday, December 6 rumors started to circulate on social media that a big-name horse had collapsed out on the west coast. Within minutes various outlets confirmed our worst fears that three-year-old colt Medina Spirit, the Bob Baffert-trained horse shrouded in controversy at the Kentucky Derby and who had just finished second last month at the Breeders’ Cup Classic, had collapsed of an apparent heart attack after his five-furlong workout at Santa Anita and expired before the track veterinarian was able to make it to the scene. Sadly, horse deaths are not particularly uncommon in the sport, but they often take place during the act of racing in which the horse suffers a catastrophic injury. However, the death of this horse, with this trainer, at this time, and under these conditions shook those who love the sport to the core and brought renewed calls for reforms, bans, or eliminating the sport entirely.

Before we delve into the fallout from the death of Medina Spirit, it is important we recognize the horse who should have been a folk hero. Medina Spirit was purchased for $1,000 as a yearling and again for $35,000 as a two-year-old, which is extraordinarily inexpensive for elite thoroughbreds who routinely go for several hundred thousand dollars or even over a million dollars at premiere sales. He was a horse that was an underdog and a little undersized but who always ran big. He never finished worse than third in his career, the 2021 Preakness Stakes, and managed to win two Grade I races, the Kentucky Derby and Awesome Again Stakes. Of course, it was his victory at the Kentucky Derby that changed the trajectory of the horse as after the race he tested positive for 18 picograms of betamethasone, a substance banned by Kentucky racing authorities. His trainer, Bob Baffert, is perhaps the most recognizable figure in the sport with his snow-white hair and his blue-tinted glasses but has a reputation of being a trainer who cuts corners and has a record of juiced horses. As litigation continued regarding whether the horse would be stripped of his title of Kentucky Derby champion, Medina Spirit continued to do what he did best—run. After a three-month layoff, he won the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar and the aforementioned Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita before running against the best horses in North America in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November. He finished second behind the presumptive Horse of the Year, Knicks Go, and again bested the rest of his three-year-old competition just as he did at the Kentucky Derby. Sadly, his last steps came after finishing a routine five-furlong workout at Santa Anita on Monday morning.  

Medina Spirit’s sudden death both shocked the horse racing community and was also not altogether that surprising. His trainer, Bob Baffert, has more deaths of horses under his care per 1,000 starts in California than any other trainer. Baffert is known for pushing his horses to the limit and has gotten popped multiple times for horses testing positive for banned substances. While young horses have been known to collapse from sudden death, starting all the way back in 2013 it appeared as if Baffert’s horses have been afflicted by this fate far more than others. Over the years, as Baffert gained more fame in the eyes of the public after he successfully trained American Pharaoh and Justify to Triple Crowns, he gained more infamy within the sport due to the repeated positive tests of his horses as well as his obsession with the Triple Crown, which serve to undercut the rest of the sport. However, the big question from all of this is what will happen next?

The first thing to realize is that while we presume to know what Medina Spirit died of, we do not know why and the answer to that question may be elusive for a couple of months. Immediately after his death, hair, saliva, and urine samples were taken by the trackside vet and his body was transported to a facility to undergo a full necropsy. While we await official answers, there are growing calls for reforms, bans, or the elimination of the sport. Our society often demands immediate justice for a wrongdoing, but swift justice can often miss the mark of solving the larger problem. Going after Baffert and banning him from the sport may feel good in the moment for some, but it does not address the underlying conditions that led to his rise or mindset. Additionally, taking down such a prominent public figure would likely mollify the masses and they would quickly shift their focus to other issues and the systemic problems in horse racing would remain unaddressed.

The best comparison to this situation is likely the debate and discourse around gun reform. Sadly, there are frequent mass shootings that raise the profile of the issue and once it happens there are calls to ban the types of guns used in the shooting without recognizing those types of guns are responsible for a small fraction of the overall gun deaths. Proponents of the second amendment will fight those attempted restrictions and the result is very little changes until the next mass shooting and the cycle begins anew. As much as the horse racing community dreaded the mainstream media coverage of Medina Spirit’s death on Monday evening as giving another black eye to the sport they love, ultimately, by Thursday, virtually no mainstream outlets were continuing to cover the story. It’s already been lost in our constantly churning media cycle, which allows for inaction to take place. 

The other question to consider is does it even matter why Medina Spirit died? While that may seem a callous question to ask, it is relevant because Medina Spirit’s death may have been entirely of natural causes and a genetic defect that had nothing to do with the horse being placed on performance-enhancing drugs. Would that outcome cease the calls for reform? Of course not. Medina Spirit, whether he died of natural causes or whether he died because of the sinister actions of a greedy trainer, will be used as a rallying cry to clean up a sport that desperately needs to be cleaned up.

Earlier this week it was announced that recently retired California-based trainer Peter Miller was fined a whopping $5,000 for his third Class 4 offense in the last year. The fact that repeated drug violations are enforced with a fine that an elementary school teacher could afford speaks to just how much work must be done. However, the reason for optimism is that horse racing is less defined by numbers and figures than most other sports. In baseball, when they were working to clean up the sport for their own performance-enhancing drug scandals, they had to reckon with the fact the single-season and all-time home run records, which every little kid in America used to memorize, were broken by juiced players and the numbers lost all meaning. In horse racing, yes, some of us obsess over the track record set by Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes, but most people enjoy the sport to watch horses compete against each other. Whether they run the opening quarter of a mile in 23 seconds, 25 seconds, or 27 seconds is mostly irrelevant. The most important thing is that it’s being done fairly and that the health and safety of the horses is sacrosanct.

Finally, for as much as we focus on trainers such as Bob Baffert and Peter Miller, ultimately, a great deal of this comes down to the owners who choose to place their horses under the care of these trainers in their quest for riches and glory. Stricter fines, penalties, and suspensions of trainers and owners would likely elicit a change in behavior, but it’s just the start. More closely regulating horse sales and breeding for health, rather than speed, and a variety of other best practices must be part of any solution.  

Horses are the lifeblood of the sport and without them, there is no sport. The most frustrating part of the story is that hundreds of thousands of people involved in the sport absolutely love these animals and devote their lives to their health and protection. Most of the horses that die in the sport are anonymous but the people who work with them are devastated by their loss. Their deaths might not register with the public like that of Medina Spirit’s, but we can ensure their deaths were not in vain if we use this opportunity to speak up and act for those who do not have a voice.

Get all of Matthew’s horse racing coverage by following him on Twitter at @failedtomenace, by following and subscribing to the Win Place Show on YouTube and the podcast platform of your choice.

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  1. Leslie M Kuretzky says:

    Thank you Sir. You hit the Nail on the Coffin of this one. Best article on this very sad death of a wonderful horse.

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