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Kentucky Derby 2021


Medina Spirit wins Kentucky Derby courtesy of Horse Network.

Colonel Liam and Domestic Spending (outside) hit the wire together in the Turf Classic. (photo by Nellie Carlson, courtesy of the Paulick Report)
Compiled by Nancy Brannon

Last year’s Triple Crown races were postponed and run out of order – without fans – due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, the races are back on their usual schedule with some pandemic restrictions still in place. Although attendance was reduced to 60% capacity, fans were back in the stands to watch this year’s 147th Run for the Roses on May 1, 2021 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

The large 19-horse field was accommodated by a single new (2020) starting gate, with 20 gates on a single gate. Previously the track had used a 14-horse starting gate, adding a six-horse auxiliary gate to accommodate additional horses.

This year also marked the first time in decades that the horses ran without Lasix, a diuretic that's been misused as a performance-enhancing drug in racing since the 1980s. Reformers in the industry successfully achieved the ban on Lasix at the Derby through the adoption of Kentucky state regulations that came just prior to the Congressional enactment of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA). The new legislation will take effect in mid-2022. (Irby 2021)
The Blue Grass Stakes winner, Essential Quality, was the favorite prior to the race. But it was Medina Spirit that gave Bob Baffert his seventh Kentucky Derby win and jockey John Velazquez his fourth Kentucky Derby win.

The dark bay colt who just turned three on April 5th was bred by Gail Rice and sold for $1,000 as a yearling at the Ocala Breeders Sale. He was purchased for $35,000 in 2020 by Amr Zedan. It was a chance meeting at the airport in Riyadh when Zedan met Bob Baffert. The two chatted and Zedan told Baffert, ironically at the time, “Maybe we’ll get together and win the (Kentucky) Derby.”

Baffert expressed some surprise that this “little horse,” as Baffert calls him, actually won the race. “But they find this little horse and it’s a Cinderella story,” Baffert commented. “He doesn’t pay attention to what we paid for him.

“I never imagined last night I was going to be sitting here. I was surrounded by great people—one of the exercise riders was crying in the Winner’s Circle. This is just such a thrilling win for this little horse. He’s a fighter.”

Medina Spirit broke well from post position number eight. Velazquez took him to the lead and the horse never relinquished it throughout the fast-paced race, run in 2:01.02.

“I liked this little horse, he’s all heart,” said Velazquez in the post-race interview. “The strategy was simple: break out into the lead and if someone wants to go faster, let him have it. I knew he was faster than the rest of the horses and especially how he breaks out of the gate. I rode him twice before and I knew he was a fighter…he showed up today.”

Race favorite Essential Quality broke well from gate 14, but soon after was bumped by Rock Your World breaking from gate number 15. He moved into sixth position and kept the pace, moving up to fourth, but not enough to capture the leader. He was on the outside of the top three finishers, having the longest trip, but finished only a length off the winner.

Top four finishers:
First: Medina Spirit
Second: Mandaloun
Third: Hot Rod Charlie
Fourth: Essential Quality

On Derby day, NBC race commentators referred to some “trouble” for Baffert in Arkansas. That “trouble” was that last year Baffert was suspended for 15 days by Oaklawn Park stewards and two of his horses were disqualified in Arkansas after testing positive for a banned substance. The suspension ran from August 1-15, 2020. His horses Charlatan and Gamine each tested positive for lidocaine in two rounds of testing after winning races at the Hot Springs, Arkansas, track on May 2, 2020. (Baltimore Sun 2020)

The Arkansas Racing Commission reconvened on Tuesday April 20, 2021, after hearing nine hours of testimony Monday, April 19 on Bob Baffert’s appeal of his suspension and fine by Oaklawn stewards for two drug positives from 2020.

Charlatan and Gamine both tested positive for small amounts of lidocaine, a painkiller, causing Baffert to be suspended for 15 days and the horses to be disqualified. The trainer and his attorneys have said that the violation was due to accidental contamination from a back pain patch worn by assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes. (Horse Racing Nation, Blood Horse 2021)

Baffert’s “troubles” were not over after the Kentucky Derby either. On Sunday May, 9, Baffert disclosed that Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit had failed a drug test, testing positive for betamethasone. “If Medina Spirit fails a second test on a second sample, also collected at the time of the race, the horse will be disqualified from the Derby and its $1.86 million in winnings forfeited. Baffert will have a chance to appeal the case, which could take months to adjudicate. …Another Baffert-trained horse, Gamine, tested positive for betamethasone in October.” (NPR)

The Washington Post, the Louisville Courier Journal, the Daily Racing Form, Bloodhorse, andNewsweek all reported on the horse’s positive drug test. The horse tested positive for 21 picograms of betamethasone. The Louisville Courier Journal reported that Churchill Downs has suspended trainer Bob Baffert from entering horses at the track…

The Paulick Report published Baffert’s statement, in which he said: “…at no point in time has anyone in my barn or any of my veterinarians ever administered betamethasone to MEDINA SPIRIT.” 

NBC News reported on May 11 that Baffert issued a second statement in which he said that Medina Spirit was treated with an ointment that included a steroid which might have led to the failed drug test. After the 3-year-old finished second at the Santa Anita Derby on April 3, Medina Spirit “developed dermatitis on his hind end” before a veterinarian “recommended the use of an anti-fungal ointment called Otomax,” Baffert said. “Yesterday, I was informed that one of the substances in Otomax is betamethasone.” (NBC News)

According to the Merck Animal Health website, “Otomax contains gentamicin sulfate, betamethasone valerate and clotrimazole in a mineral oil-based system containing a plasticized hydrocarbon gel.”
About betamethasone:

According to Bloodhorse, betamethasone “is a corticosteroid that is among the accepted medications used in horse racing.” In 2020, “Kentucky updated its rules on corticosteroids, like betamethasone, which calls for a withdrawal time of 14 days before a race – up from the previous seven days.” Now, “any level of detection of betamethasone is a violation.”

According to the Paulick Report, “Betamethasone is a commonly-used corticosteroid which is typically given by intra-articular joint injection. Corticosteroids are effective at reducing pain and inflammation in joints as a result of osteoarthritis or other problems.”

Kentucky Equine Research published an article in 2017 about the direct administration of anti-inflammatory corticosteroid drugs into joints to provide pain relief in horses. “Corticosteroids such as betamethasone frequently provide relief for horses suffering joint pain, but studies show that preventing joint disease prior to trauma or any sort of wear and tear is also an effective approach to managing joint health,” stated Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research, in this article.

Betavet® markets the drug as a sterile aqueous suspension of betamethasone acetate in betamethasone sodium phosphate injection. Federal law restricts use of this drug by or on order of a licensed veterinarian. (DailyMed, NLM,

The 2020 Virtual AAEP Convention included a session on “In-Depth: Medication and Therapeutics for Racehorses.” Topics included: Overview on Racehorse Medications - Heather Knych; Approaches for Equine Medication Control (Anti-Doping) – Scott D. Stanley; Responsible Use of Medication in Performance/Racehorses – Jeff A. Blea; and Role of the Veterinarian in Thoroughbred Racing Safety – George D. Mundy.More information at:
Turf Classic Stakes
Race number 11, the Turf Classic Stakes, run just prior to the Derby, was a thrilling race, ending in a dead heat with Colonel Liam and Domestic Spending. It was the first dead heat in the 35-year history of the Grade 1 grass fixture run immediately prior to the Kentucky Derby. Colonel Liam is trained by Todd Pletcher and was ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr. Domestic Spending is trained by Chad Brown and was ridden by Flavien Prat.
Gross, Richard R. Ph.D. 2021. “Medina Spirit Gives Bob Baffert Record-Breaking Seventh Kentucky Derby Win.” Horse Network. May 2.
Kentucky Derby.
Paulick Report Staff. 2021. “Colonel Liam, Domestic Spending Dead-Heat In A Turf Classic Thriller. Paulick Report. May 1.
Paulick Report Staff. 2021. “Baffert: Kentucky Derby Winner Medina Spirit Tests Positive for Betamethasone.” Paulick Report. May 9.
Harris, Beth, Associated Press. 2020. “Trainer Bob Baffert Suspended 15 Days by Arkansas Stewards.” Baltimore Sun. July 15.
Horse Racing Nation staff. 2021. “Hearings in Baffert Drug Case Continue at Oaklawn. Horse Racing Nation. April 20.
Angst, Frank. 2021. “Arkansas Racing Commission Considers Baffert’s Appeal. Blood Horse. April 19.
Irby, Marty. 2021. Press release. “American Horse Racing Still at a Crossroads on Derby Day.” Patch. April 30.
McDaniel, Eric. 2021. “Kentucky Derby Winner Fails Drug Test, Renewing Scrutiny for Trainer Bob Baffert.” NPR. May 9.
Kempt, Reina. 2021. “Here’s What We Know Following Kentucky Derby Winner Medina Spirit’s Positive Drug Test.” Louisville Courier Journal. May 10.
Angst, Frank. 2021. “Derby Positive Puts Spotlight on Betamethosone.” Bloodhorse. May 9.
Kentucky Equine Research Staff. 2017. “Treating Joint Pain in Horses.” KER Equinews™. March 2.
McIlwraith, C. Wayne. 2011. “Choosing Joint Therapies for the Best Results: Use of Corticosteroids.” AAEP Proceedings, vol. 57.
Li, David K. and Alexander Mitchell. 2021. “Medina Spirit unknowingly treated with steroid that showed up in drug test, trainer says.” NBC News. May 11.
Merck Animal Health USA:

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