If Medina Spirit is stripped of the 2021 Kentucky Derby victory, second-place Mandaloun would be deemed the winner … but bettors on Mandaloun would still be out of luck.
Medina Spirit’s win is now under investigation after blood tests determined an elevated presence of betamethasone, a regulated anti-inflammatory used to manage pain. Churchill Downs has suspended trainer Bob Baffert pending the final results of the investigation, which will include a second round of testing.
Baffert, a Hall of Fame trainer and (currently) winner of a record seven Kentucky Derbys, maintains innocence, saying Medina Spirit had never even been treated with betamethasone.
If the second test comes back positive, Medina Spirit would lose the victory and Mandaloun will be named the winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby. All prize money would then be taken from Medina Spirit’s team and awarded to Mandaloun’s.
As for the other money involved — the small-dollar bets laid down on Medina Spirit and others — that’s done and gone. There will be no refunds, and no awards to anyone still holding a Mandaloun ticket.
“All bets will stand as settled,” said John Ewing, data analyst for BetMGM. “The race result has already been determined official and paid. Disqualifications from positive drug tests will not change the results.”
Bob Heleringer, author of “Equine Regulatory Law,” told the Louisville Courier-Journal in 2019 that once a race is official, no later change by regulatory authorities has any effect on payouts. He termed it “one of the most irrevocable standards in racing.”
The reasons for an all-bets-are-settled policy are obvious. Reopening payouts after a changed result would be impossibly complex. Imagine, for instance, a baseball team whose best player, a record-breaking slugger, was found to have juiced throughout the latter half of his career. Would a sports book have to pay out all losing bets made against that team? Imagine a college basketball team that committed multiple recruiting violations and was stripped of its wins. Would bettors who laid money down on that team have to repay their winnings, since the wins no longer existed?
Of course not, on either count. The sportsbook must have faith in a sport’s regulating body to run a legitimate competition, and bettors’ winnings — and future wagers — ride on that faith.
The money involved is not insubstantial. Bettors wagered $2,871,557 on Medina Spirit to win at 12-1 odds through TwinSpires, the Kentucky Derby’s official betting partner. Another $1,352,157 was bet on Mandaloun to win at 26-1 odds. Those totals don’t include the wagering on place and show results, or any more exotic wages like exactas or trifectas.
Only two horses have ever been disqualified from the Kentucky Derby after winning. In 2019, Maximum Security crossed the finish line first, but judges determined the horse had illegally impeded other challengers. In that instance, the disqualification happened shortly after the Derby’s conclusion, before the race had been ruled official, so no payouts on Maximum Security were made.
The 1968 Kentucky Derby is a more comparable situation to 2021. In that race, Dancer’s Image won, and the race was declared official. A urine sample taken shortly after the race turned up positive for phenylbutazone, a painkiller, later that evening, and a Sunday re-test verified the result.
Churchill Downs made the news public on the Tuesday after the race: Dancer’s Image would be stripped of the win. “Bute” was not illegal but, like betamethasone, could not be administered immediately before a race. Dancer’s Image’s owner filed multiple appeals, and accusations and counter-accusations flew between owner, trainer, veterinarian and Churchill Downs. Ultimately Forward Pass remained the winner, then and now in historical records. The ruling did not affect payouts, which were made when the race was official.
The Medina Spirit story is only beginning. The outcome is uncertain, but if the second blood test turns up positive, it’s likely there will be a protracted fight over Medina Spirit’s legacy.
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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.