Commentary: The Brink of Bob Baffert's Hubris

Medina Spirit is drawn in for the 146th running of the Preakness on Saturday. Should Bob Baffert have kept his colt in the 2nd Leg of the Triple Crown? What will be the ramifications of the decision? J.N. Campbell comments . . .
Medina Spirit is drawn in for the 146th running of the Preakness on Saturday. Should Bob Baffert have kept his colt in the 2nd Leg of the Triple Crown? What will be the ramifications of the decision? J.N. Campbell comments . . .

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Is it possible that Bob Baffert’s very reputation as a trainer ... his position in Thoroughbred history ... his character and persona ... are all on the brink? A legacy more associated with medication violations than the number of wins? It would appear so ...

Over the weekend, the celebrated trainer who almost everyone recognizes when the words “horse racing in America” are uttered, faced the music of the media. It was evidently leaked that his Kentucky Derby-winning colt, Medina Spirit, had tested positive for 21 picograms of betamethasone.

Baffert appeared on Sunday morning looking like he was on pins and needles, as his runners were going through a washdown. He assembled in front of a growing throng, and began to mount a measured defense. It was an attempt to mirror something one might hear from celebrated defense attorneys like Clarence Darrow or Alan Dershowitz. Of course, he had his personal lawyer alongside, but a transcript would be a challenge to distinguish who was the trainer and who was the lawyer. Some folksy Baffert-esque statements sprinkled in would be tell-tale giveaways, I suppose.

The barn area at Churchill Downs was abuzz with activity, as many contemplated the ramifications of what was just reported. The show did not stop there, because over the next couple of days Baffert took to the airwaves. During that time, he issued a series of statements and answered questions from laypeople who hadn’t the foggiest what they were asking. Baffert vowed to get to the bottom of what happened, but at times he seemed content to play the part of the victim, oblivious to the inner workings of dispensing medication. We can infer from the tone of these proclamations that they were meant to explain and rebut any notions of impropriety.

Into Monday, his message was clearly that he did not know how a Class C drug, that was tabbed as illegal by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s race day “watch list,” found its way into Medina Spirit’s bloodstream. Pressure across social media was unrelenting, but when you are the de facto face of the sport ... so it goes. Baffert in the blitz was steadfast, despite a series of messages that were contradictory. In the end, topical cream and pictures of a rash on Medina Spirit surfaced, the cause possibly outed.

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By Tuesday, a deal was struck with the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC), and a special case structure of rules was revealed. The implementation of benchmarks for which all of Baffert’s Pimlico entries would have to meet was laid out. The draw for the Preakness was pushed back, but in the end 10 will go forward, including the Derby champion. Through his attorney, Baffert stated that he was prepared to go to the courts if Medina Spirit was not allowed to run. The folks in Maryland knew they were checkmated, and due process was not on their side. Baffert in a separate statement revealed he would not be making the trip to Maryland ... we knew why.

Laying all these chess moves aside, instead of weighing in on the question of whether the MJC should have let Zedan Racing’s entry run in the 146th Edition of the Preakness ... maybe a better question is, should Baffert have taken the initiative and scratched his horse from the Preakness?

Some camps will continue to ask a series of questions germinating from this one ... Wouldn’t it save the sport undue embarrassment, and stave off even more criticism? Furthermore ... a follow-up would be, what if the colt wins on Saturday? Will New York Racing Association be as forgiving, if he tries to go for the Triple Crown? That leaves the Thoroughbred world where exactly ...

Bob Baffert appears to be a rational individual, but like all professionals who rise to the upper echelons above the everyday strata, he still regularly must mange and grapple with hubris—excessive pride. A concept dealt with across the millenniums, and exhibited most in the teachings of literature. Fame, in other words, hands us a fateful choice again, and again, and again ... Our application of character is our bulwark, but most of the time we can never apply the same solution to a situation in the same manner. Baffert might believe he knows what to do, in this case entering Medina Spirit in the Preakness, but he is risking everything to do so. It has the potential to reverberate back on his legacy and on his good name.

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The Kentucky Derby may be lost at this point. And if Medina Spirit wins the Preakness, many may well believe that it was done under false pretenses. The flank will be exposed. What if Baffert’s clientele begins to slowly erode? Powerful Spendthrift has already confirmed it is “paused,” when it comes to employing the conditioner. Will more follow?

The problem with hubris is that it is much like a drug. The power behind it can be a healing one, giving the hope that lasting relief is possible. But it also has a side to it that is built on ramifications. The bill comes due, so to speak, when it cannot deliver the intended results. Horse racing already teeters on an existence of borrowed time, even with the arrival of the HISA. There is much to uncover when we shine the light in the corner ... degradation at the hands of decentralization, and with trainers like Baffert who continually appear to be caught red-handed by violation after violation, do little to assist. Perception is 9/10th of the law, isn’t it?

Baffert’s decision to run is built on the fact that he did not know. There was no intent, to put it in legal terms. Yet, not knowing will presumably cost him Medina Spirit’s Kentucky Derby win. If it doesn’t, then Churchill Downs will have even more to answer for than they already do. There is enough hubris to go around.

That is exactly where we are in the wake of the draw at Pimlico. Staring over the edge of the abyss, with hubris in hand ... Is it too dramatic to argue that Thoroughbred racing hangs in the balance? Its most decorated and recognizable citizen is defending his position, all the while staking everything on the claim of good governance. At Keeneland during the Breeders’ Cup last year, Baffert told NBC Sports that he was vowing to clean up his own organization, and bring in the best minds that could help him safely and securely improve his operation. Already those promises appear to be in shambles ... the best laid plans of mice ... and ...

Whatever happens this coming weekend in Baltimore, Bob Baffert has put our sport in great peril in the name of character traits like pride and excessive confidence. I hope he knows what he is doing at the brink. It’s not just his reputation at stake ... 

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Preakness Stakes 2021

Preakness Stakes 2021 Race Card

3
PP 3

Medina Spirit

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: John Velazquez /
  • Trainer: Bob Baffert /
Morning Line Odds

Kentucky Derby winner. You all know the story about his failed drugs test. Has to pass Pre-Race testing otherwise he will be scratched. If he runs, worthy favorite. Tough front-running horse.

10
PP 10

Concert Tour

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Mike Smith /
  • Trainer: Bob Baffert /
Morning Line Odds

Second favorite behind stablemate Medina Spirit. Won the San Vicente and Rebel in impressive fashion before a third place finish at the Arkansas Derby. Front-runner. If he gets out to the lead early then he'll be tough to beat. Big if though with Medina Spirit in the field.

5
PP 5

Midnight Bourbon

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr. /
  • Trainer: Steve Asmussen /
Morning Line Odds

If you are looking to bet away from Bob Baffert, here's your best shot. Hit the board in all five of the Derby Prep Races he entered, winning the Grade III Lecomte. Ran 6th in the Derby. Contender.

4
PP 4

Crowded Trade

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Javier Castellano /
  • Trainer: Chad Brown /

Hit the board twice in the NYRA Road to the Derby. Surprised he's as short as 10/1 on the Morning Line. Expect that to drift.

6
PP 6

Rombauer

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Flavien Prat /
  • Trainer: Michael McCarthy /

My favorite horse of the perceived outsiders. Thought his third place behind Essential Quality and Highly Motivated in the Grade II Blue Grass was a good run. Outsider but not a no hoper.

2
PP 2

Keepmeinmind

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: David Cohen /
  • Trainer: Robertino Diodoro /

Came home 7th in the Kentucky Derby. Looked like an excellent two-year-old but hasn't hit the board in three starts as a three-year-old. Tough to back even in deep exotics.

8
PP 8

Unbridled Honor

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Luis Saez /
  • Trainer: Todd Pletcher /

Broke his Maiden back in February at Tampa Bay Downs. 4th in the Tampa Bay Derby and second behind King Fury at the Lexington. Would be a big step up to contend in the Preakness.

9
PP 9

Risk Taking

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Jose Ortiz /
  • Trainer: Chad Brown /

Won the Grade III Withers back in February but followed that up with a 7th place finish in that shocking Wood Memorial. Deep exotics possibilities.

7
PP 7

France Go De Ina

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Joel Rosario /
  • Trainer: Hideyuki Mori /

Flown in from Japan following a very disappointing 6th place in the UAE Derby. Was highly thought of going into that race. Would need to up his game seriously to be near the front in the closing stages.

1
PP 1

Ram

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Ricardo Santana Jr. /
  • Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas /

Broke his Maiden at the 9th time of asking. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas looking for his 8th Preakness win. Real real long shot here.

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