Like the athletes who competed in the recent Winter Olympics, Thoroughbred racehorses train all their competitive lives to participate in a sport that can mirror a full life in brief minutes.

There is the single-minded daily grind of training that hones not only the body, but also the spirit. Years of preparation can culminate in joy or grief, triumph or tragedy—in the opening words of the old ABC program Wide World of Sports, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” 

In racing, the triumphs include the Secretariats and American Pharoahs; the tragedies, the Ruffians and Barbaros. 

As most schoolchildren learn while studying Greek mythology, tragedy often proceeds from triumph, the hero blessed with great ability and achievement, but cursed with a fatal flaw. 

On May 1 at Churchill Downs, Medina Spirit tore a page from that mythology when he crossed the finish line first in America’s most storied race, the Kentucky Derby. The thrill of that victory would begin to unravel minutes after the race ended when a fatal flaw, later confirmed, was found post-race in his bloodstream. 

For the past nine months, Medina Spirit has been referred to in stories posted in this space as “the current Derby winner” while his trainer Bob Baffert and owner Zedan Stable argued in court and regulatory hearings that the substance that could take away his achievement was contained in an ointment intended to make him well. 

The horse would not be around for the result of those proceedings. His own final tragedy, the end of his life, occurred in the early morning hours of Dec. 6 at California’s Santa Anita Park when Medina Spirit completed a routine five-furlong training run, then fell lifeless to the dirt track. His recently completed necropsy deemed his cause of death “inconclusive,” but consistent with a likely heart attack.

Earlier this week, that fatal flaw, the substance betamethasone, officially ripped away for now the horse’s achievement, that Kentucky Derby win, following a closed hearing. Kentucky racing stewards disqualified Medina Spirit and placed him last, elevating runner up Mandaloun to the ranks of official Derby victors.

The following day, the green name plate with gold lettering that bore the name Medina Spirit, identical with the signs of the winners that came before him and encircle Churchill Downs, was removed and one bearing the name Mandaloun installed in its place.

Medina Spirit’s tragedy was complete, his life ended, his achievement withdrawn, his name erased. 

Fans and foes of racing and of his trainer, having followed the story all these months, know all the details. Betamethasone is a Class C corticosteroid, a substance that is banned on racedays.

In its injectable form, it can be used to mask potentially serious inflammation in a horse’s joints, a condition that could be serious enough to cause a breakdown should the horse race.

The substance, Medina Spirit’s connections would argue and prove accurate, was contained in the topical ointment Otomax used to treat a broad spectrum of skin conditions, fungal-caused dermatitis in Medina Spirit’s on the horse’s right rear quarter in this case.

However, Kentucky rules ban the presence of the substance in the horse’s bloodstream on raceday without specifying the form.

While the hearing was not public, the arguments on either side were predictable.

Proponents of the horse’s disqualification no doubt argued the rule exists to protect the horse and those who wager on horseracing, to guard against injury to the horse or performance enhancement during racing.

The defendants—the horse’s connections—have argued publicly for the months preceding this hearing that the betamethasone-containing ointment was used for the horse’s well-being, that it was not performance enhancing and that it was administered in the timely manner according to the rule—more than the recommended 14 days—that would allow it to leave the horse’s bloodstream. 

But the existence of a rule regarding its presence at all made the decision predictable. 

“I am very disappointed in the ruling,” said Baffert attorney Craig Robertson following the decision.  

Clinging to the interpretation that the rule is intended to ban the injectable form of the substance, betamethasone acetate, and does not apply to the form present in the ointment, betamethasone valerate, Robertson said the stewards’ ruling would be “immediately appealed” to the full Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC). 

“It runs contrary to the scientifically proven facts in this case and the rules of the KHRC,” explained Robertson regarding the grounds of the intended appeal. 

Kentucky Horse Racing Commission Executive Director Marc Guilfoil declined comment on the decision.

It is unlikely the full Commission will overturn the ruling. However, because it is a regulatory body, not a legal one, that ruling could be appealed in the Kentucky courts. 

“The outcome should have been clear,” said another Baffert attorney, Clark Brewster. “Betamethasone valerate is a permitted substance that can be administered to a horse. It was not injected. And it was administered at the direction of a veterinarian, who contemporaneously reported that treatment to a national database accessible to the KHRC prior to the Kentucky Derby. There was no rule violation.” 

Kentucky rules, like those in most of the country’s 38 racing jurisdictions, hold the trainer responsible for substance infractions irrespective of who actually administers the substance. 

Brewster continued: “The unrefuted and undisputed facts established at the hearing were: (1) Medina Spirit was treated with an ointment, not an injection; (2) the trace amount of betamethasone detected could not have affected the horse in any way; and (3) the trace amount of betamethasone detected could not possibly have affected the outcome of the race. 

“In other words, Medina Spirit would have won with or without the ointment because it was irrelevant in every way. The stewards’ decision to rob Medina Spirit of a victory he earned was not in accordance with the law but instead represents biased, purposeful, and wrongful action.” 

In keeping with the decision and the fact the substance in the topical form is not deemed performance enhancing, Baffert also was suspended from training, stabling and racing at all Kentucky racetracks for 90 days and fined $7,500. He is currently serving a two-year suspension from Churchill Downs, Inc. and its properties in Kentucky and the nation. 

Among racing fans and the public, Baffert has both supporters and detractors. But, whatever side one takes in the outcome so far, Baffert will appear to suffer relatively mild racing and financial consequences.  

The legacy of Medina Spirit suffers the loss of his Kentucky Derby achievement, his good name and, ultimately, his life.  

For many, those comparative punishments will be the real tragedy of Medina Spirit.