LOUISVILLE, KY. — Barn 33 used to be the hottest spot in the Churchill Downs stable area. During the week before the Kentucky Derby, trainer Bob Baffert held court every morning, cracking jokes and telling tales to a mob of fans and media hanging on his every word.

Not this year. Baffert has been banished from the race that made him famous, after his colt Medina Spirit failed a drug test and was disqualified as the winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Thursday, the throngs that came to watch horses train for Saturday's 148th edition of the Derby barely noticed Baffert's old haunt, now stripped of his stable's signage and splashed with a fresh coat of bland beige paint.

Though Baffert has won six Kentucky Derbies and two Triple Crowns, a series of positive drug tests in his horses has stained the reputation of the trainer and the sport. While Baffert continues to fight sanctions in multiple states, racing is trying to repair the damage.

“In some places, there's a 'good old boy network' that pushes things under the rug. We've never had that here. ”
Camille McArdle, Minnesota Racing commission chair

A new federal law, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA), will take effect July 1. It will create national safety and drug testing rules for thoroughbred racing in every state. Advocates hope the law will reduce equine fatalities, crack down on medication violations and restore public confidence after a series of high-profile cases such as the one that changed last year's Derby result.

"It seems like this came at a time when the racing industry needed it,'' said Andrew Offerman, vice president of racing at Shakopee's Canterbury Park. "The sport is under a microscope right now. A lot of the storylines of the past five to seven years have centered around controversy.

"Time will tell how effective HISA is. But it's a first step toward seeing what we can achieve.''

Mounting sanctions

One of the most successful trainers in thoroughbred racing history, Baffert, 69, has been barred from entering horses in any races at Churchill Downs, including the Kentucky Derby, for two years. When the suspension was issued last June, Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen cited Baffert's history of drug violations.

Medina Spirit won last year's Derby at 12-1 odds. The colt later tested positive for betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory drug that can be injected into a horse's joints to ease pain and swelling. Though it's not strictly banned, the medication is not allowed to be in a horse's system on race day in any amount.

Baffert argued that the drug had been used topically for a skin rash, not to prevent pain or enhance performance. But the failed test was his fifth violation of medication rules in 13 months. Churchill Downs suspended Baffert, and in February, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission disqualified Medina Spirit and declared runner-up Mandaloun the winner of the 2021 Derby.

In December, Medina Spirit collapsed and died after a workout in California. A necropsy did not determine the cause of death, though California racing officials said two permissible medications were the only drugs found in the horse's system.

"Mr. Baffert's record of testing failures threatens public confidence in thoroughbred racing and the reputation of the Kentucky Derby,'' Carstanjen said in a statement announcing Baffert's ban. "Reckless practices and substance violations that jeopardize the safety of our equine and human athletes or compromise the integrity of our sport are not acceptable.''

Baffert has sued Churchill Downs over the sanctions. He also was suspended for 90 days by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, a penalty being honored by other states. The ban extends to Maryland and New York, making him ineligible to enter horses in all three Triple Crown races this year: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

New York is seeking to suspend Baffert for two years. A report cited his "reckless practices, outrageous behavior and substance violations" and said his actions harmed the sport's reputation, integrity and public perception.

Calls for horse safety

Besides the Baffert case, racing has faced other recent controversies. At California's Santa Anita Park, 56 horses died over 17 months in 2018-19, prompting a temporary shutdown and increased safety measures. In 2020, 27 people were indicted on federal charges for using misbranded or adulterated drugs to "secretly and dangerously enhance'' racehorses' performances.

Those violations increased calls to better regulate the sport. The HISA legislation was supported by many major players in racing, including the Jockey Club, Breeders' Cup and National Thoroughbred Racing Association, along with several tracks and state racing commissions.

“The sport is under a microscope right now. A lot of the storylines of the past five to seven years have centered around controversy.”
Andrew Offerman, Canterbury Park vice president

The law created a federal authority to oversee safety regulations and drug testing in thoroughbred racing. All U.S. tracks will be required to meet uniform standards. In the past, state racing commissions set their own rules, and some had lax safety protocols and poor drug testing.

Dr. Camille McArdle, chair of the Minnesota Racing Commission, said Minnesota has been an industry leader. She predicted Canterbury Park will adapt quickly to the safety regulations taking effect in July because the track already has some of the best practices in the country.

"In Minnesota, we started out with careful controls, the state made the investment, and we've been ahead of the game ever since,'' she said. "When the new drug-testing rules take effect in January 2023, a lot of them will be based on what we do here in Minnesota. On the safety side, we've always done things like pre-race exams for every horse.

"In some places, there's a 'good old boy network' that pushes things under the rug. We've never had that. This is going to level the playing field.''

Medina Spirit's disqualification leaves Baffert tied with Ben Jones for most Kentucky Derby victories by a trainer. Saturday, two horses Baffert used to train — Taiba and Messier — will be among the Derby favorites. They were allowed to run after their owners moved them from the Baffert stable to trainer Tim Yakteen.

Baffert won't be seen at Churchill Downs, except in the exhibits at the Kentucky Derby Museum. Barn 33 will be lonely. As racing tries to move forward, McArdle hopes Baffert's saga sends a message.

"The vast majority of people in this industry love horses,'' she said. "But when something goes wrong, there has to be accountability. No matter who it is.''