Drug-tainted Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit will attempt to claim the second leg of US horse racing's Triple Crown on Saturday as the 146th Preakness Stakes takes place in Baltimore under a cloud of doping intrigue.
The shockwaves from the Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit's failed Derby drugs test continue to ripple across racing, muting the sense of anticipation that would normally build ahead of Saturday's classic at Pimlico.
While Baffert's horse starts as the bookmaker's favorite, any victory will inevitably be accompanied by question marks.
As it stands, Medina Spirit faces being stripped of the Kentucky Derby crown if results of a second test from the sample comes back positive.
The three-year-old colt is only being allowed to race in Baltimore this weekend after Baffert agreed to tougher than normal drug testing ahead of the race and for all test results to be made public.
Medina Spirit was found to have traces of the banned steroid betamethasone in his system following the Derby.
Baffert -- who has been mired in multiple drugs controversies in recent seasons -- initially denied giving betamethasone to the horse, before later admitting the substance was contained in an anti-fungal ointment.
The 68-year-old Hall of Fame trainer -- who guided American Pharoah to the Triple Crown in 2015 before repeating the feat with Justify in 2018 -- will not be at Pimlico for Saturday's race.
Instead, assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes will take charge of Medina Spirit as well as the other Baffert-trained entry, Concert Tour.
While Baffert has opted not to attend the Preakness in person, he has loomed large over the build-up.
Some in US racing believe that the controversy has been overblown, with fellow Hall-of-Famer D. Wayne Lukas springing to Baffert's defence.
- 'Distraught' Baffert -
"I've never seen him quite this distraught," Lukas said of Baffert. "He's innocent. He's the number one trainer in the world right now.
"He represents so much of the industry. He's the face of the industry. He needs to step up and represent it."
The 85-year-old Lukas, a six-time Preakness winner, said he had tried to persuade Baffert to attend this week's race in person.
"I tried to get Bob to come. I talked to him a number of times this week. I thought he should come and maybe just take it on head on."
"Maybe fine Bob for not reading the labels properly," Lukas added. "But other than that, I think he's totally innocent."
Other figures within the sport have been less sympathetic, however.
In a series of posts on Twitter, Kentucky-based trainer Tim Glyshaw said Baffert received preferential treatment because of his profile, noting he had not been suspended for any of five drug violations in the past year.
"I would have the purse taken away, and I would be suspended for 15 days," Glyshaw wrote. "So why doesn't (Baffert) get the same penalty? Because he has a lawyer on retainer and is deemed too big to punish."
Medina Spirit will start as a 9-5 favourite on Saturday, with stablemate Concert Tour the second favourite at odds of 5-2.
The Steve Asmussen-trained Midnight Bourbon (5-1) could emerge as the biggest threat to the two Baffert-trained entries.
Midnight Bourbon was bumped at the starting gate in the Kentucky Derby and eventually finished in sixth, but Asmussen says the bay colt ridden by Irad Ortiz is ready to bounce back in Baltimore.
"He's doing great, wonderful physically," Asmussen said.
"He's just such a beautiful specimen. He goves over the racetrack so pretty ... we love our chances."