Opinion: Horse racing can breathe a sigh of relief as Medina Spirit's Triple Crown bid ends

If you felt a slight breeze running on the East Coast at around 7 p.m. Saturday night, it was probably a collective exhale from the New York Racing Association and the folks at Belmont Park, which hosts the final leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown.

When the Kentucky Derby winner loses the Preakness, it’s typically a Belmont bummer — the difference between one of the biggest American sporting events of the year and a race that casual viewers generally avoid. But this time, as Medina Spirit faded down the Pimlico stretch to a distant third-place finish behind 11-1 shot Rombauer, it was almost certainly a blessing for all involved.

There will be no talk of split sample drug tests and a disputed Triple Crown for the next three weeks. There won’t be any risk of rowdy New Yorkers booing Medina Spirit as he runs for history. There won’t be such intense focus on trainer Bob Baffert’s failed drug tests and what’s wrong with the sport.

In fact, there won’t be much focus on horse racing at all. After the spectacle of the last week, it’s probably the best possible outcome.

Jockey John Velazquez aboard Medina Spirit during the 146th Preakness Stakes.
Jockey John Velazquez aboard Medina Spirit during the 146th Preakness Stakes.

146th Preakness Stakes: Rombauer storms to victory; Medina Spirit finishes third

To be clear, Medina Spirit’s finish at Pimlico doesn’t really suggest much one way or the other about whether the betamethasone that was found in his system after winning the Kentucky Derby enhanced his performance that day. But for casual fans of the sport who tuned in to see how the horse would run on a day when we know he was clean, it’s going to be a difficult narrative for Baffert to combat.

You can’t put two and two together on this one, though, because it’s hard for any Kentucky Derby winners to come back in two weeks and duplicate that effort at the Preakness. Only five horses in the last 15 years have been able to do it, and the ones who can are typically the rugged physical specimen types. It’s no surprise that Medina Spirit, a smallish horse, tired out this time after digging in down the stretch at the Derby.

At the same time, it was a pretty terrible effort for the Baffert barn this weekend. He sent three horses to Pimlico, all of whom had to pass multiple drug tests as a condition of allowing them to run. One of them, Beautiful Gift, finished seventh as the favorite in Friday’s Black-Eyed Susan Stakes for fillies. Baffert’s other Preakness entry, Concert Tour, was never a factor and finished ninth in the 10-horse field. Though it was clear at the top of the stretch that Medina Spirit was going to be beaten, at least he didn’t embarrass himself.

Now, at least, horse racing can move on to tackling the bigger issues around doping rather than worrying about the public perception of having Baffert in New York trying to win his third Triple Crown while awaiting adjudication of a Derby result that will likely be stripped from him in the end.

That would have been a downright disaster for horse racing.

Just as an example of how tricky it can get, NBC (which covered the story thoroughly) referred to Medina Spirit many times during its broadcast Saturday as the Kentucky Derby winner — which is technically true, but only because the result of the split sample test hasn’t come back yet. But even then, the attorney for owner Amr Zedan has suggested that there’s wiggle room in the rule that should prevent Medina Spirit from being disqualified, which means this could end up in a long legal fight.

For context: When Dancer’s Image was disqualified from the 1968 Kentucky Derby due to a positive test for an anti-inflammatory that wasn’t allowed to be in the horse’s system on race day, it took almost four years before all the legal appeals were exhausted.

Thus, the Medina Spirit saga isn’t going away anytime soon. Baffert’s most recent explanation that the betamethasone might have come from treating the horse with Otomax, a topical ointment for dermatitis, needs far more scrutiny and answers from Baffert, who watched the race at home in California and is likely to lay low for awhile.

This is a tough position for Baffert now. When his horses do well in big races going forward, there’s going to be a collective eye-roll about whether rules were bent. That’s the price of having five positive drug tests in major stakes races during a one-year period. But when his horses run poorly, it cuts the other way: Is he really that much better than everyone else when the playing field is level?

It was certainly level in the Preakness, and Baffert’s horses bombed. Why that happened is conjecture and correlation, but it’s also a fact.

By next summer, horse racing will have in place a robust drug testing program in concert with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency thanks to national legislation that was signed by former President Donald Trump last December. But that won’t encompass next year’s Triple Crown, when Baffert will once again be on the minds of a wide national audience.

Hopefully horse racing can do some cleaning of its own house between now and then. In the meantime, not having a tainted Triple Crown winner is a small relief for a sport in need of big reform.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Medina Spirit finishes third in Preakness, ending Triple Crown bid