Like his 2021 first-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, the results of the necropsy performed on Medina Spirit remain inconclusive.

The three-year-old colt died suddenly Dec. 6 after finishing a routine five-furlong workout at Santa Anita Park, the home-base of his trainer, Bob Baffert.

His Kentucky Derby win was placed into doubt following a post-race test revealing the presence of the raceday-in-Kentucky banned substance betamethasone. This led many, particularly commentators on social media, to suggest the cause of the horse’s Dec. 6 death was drug-induced.

Veterinarians and equine forensic experts at the University of California, Davis, with the aid of experts at other universities, determined the colt’s death may have resulted from a sudden heart attack, incapable of being traced to a specific cause.

The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) wrote in a statement: “A definitive cause of death was not established despite extensive testing.”

That testing included hair, blood and urine samples, which the CHRB report indicated contained no evidence of illegal substances.

Traces of omeprazole, an anti-ulcer medication, and furosemide (Lasix), a commonly used diuretic to prevent bleeding in racehorses were reported as found in the blood and urine samples. “No other drugs, heavy metals or toxicants were found,” reported the CHRB.

Organ examination in the necropsy revealed enlarged lungs, foam in the horse’s windpipe and an enlarged spleen, all of which were determined to be “compatible with, but not specific, for a cardiac event.”

Pulmonary congestion and edema was deemed “consistent with acute heart failure.”

The CHRB explained in a news release the precise manner in which this necropsy was performed. Tissue samples were taken from the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, spleen, stomach, intestines, spinal cord, brain and muscles.

Liver tissue was tested for various substances, legal, illegal and environmental. Blood samples were tested at Cornell University, heart tissue samples at both the University of Minnesota and the University of California, Davis, Veterinary Genetics Laboratory.

Blood, urine and other liquid samples were tested for what the report states were “hundreds” of legal and illegal substances, including erythropoietin or EPO, which increases oxygenation of red blood cells, clenbuterol (BUTE) and betamethasone. None of these were found.

The report did reveal early degenerative joint disease in all four fetlocks and elbow joints. This, claims the report, is typical in racehorses.

A copy of the complete redacted report can be found on the Thoroughbred Daily News website.

California officials noted an inconclusive result was not unusual in such horse fatalities, with perhaps half reaching a presumptive or non-specific cause of death, the remaining half determined “with certainty.” In 2020, 10 of the 71 Thoroughbreds and American Quarter horses that died in California were determined to be sudden deaths.

The eagerly anticipated report comes at the identical time stewards are conducting a private hearing to determine whether Medina Spirit should be stripped of his Derby win, with roses awarded instead to second-place finisher Mandaloun.

That hearing, previously scheduled for Feb. 7, was instead rescheduled for Feb. 14. That hearing is being conducted with attorneys representing both trainer Baffert and owner Zedan Racing Stables, and Kentucky racing authorities.

It is possible the hearing date was pushed back to await the results of the necropsy.

Should the determination go against Medina Spirit and his connections, that decision could be appealed to the full Kentucky Horse Racing Board (KHRB). Beyond that, it could proceed to a lengthy court battle taking years.

The KHRB rule stipulates the legal anti-inflammatory medication, betamethasone, cannot be present in any amount on raceday. Medina Spirit tested positive for 23 picograms (trillionths). A subsequent split sample confirmed that finding.

Baffert, following a series of confusing post-race statements, insisted the raceday-banned substance was contained in the topical, Otomax, and was used to treat dermatitis on the horse’s right rear quarter and that it was neither harmful to the horse, nor performance-enhancing. Before and after photographs in the Daily Racing Form appeared to confirm the efficacy of the purported treatment.

The Baffert team won a compromise in the local Frankfort, KY court to have the remaining sample tested by a lab approved by both Medina Spirit’s connections and Kentucky authorities to prove the substance was contained in a topical, not an injectable. The injectable form of the substance is thought to be used to mask potentially serious orthopedic problems.

That subsequent laboratory report confirmed other ingredients could only be contained in a topical form containing betamethasone, ingredients not present in the injectable.

It can be expected the current hearing will focus on the Baffert team’s contention that the topical was used to benefit the horse and prevent the potential spreading of a possible fungal infection to other horses in his barn. They will contest the purpose of the rule itself.

Kentucky officials can be expected to contend the rule is intended to benefit horses and horse bettors while providing a level playing field in racing.

Baffert attorney Clark Brewster issued a statement in response to the issuance of the report that read in part: “Extensive toxicological testing on multiple samples found no unexpected substances and nothing to suggest that Medina Spirit’s cardiac arrest was caused by the use of medications.

“It appears that his tragic death was an act of God [stet] and not preventable.”

Feature image: @Coady Photography