Just by looking at him, it’s hard to tell that Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit is a bad horse. But, obviously, he is. Check the record.
This horse is a proved doper and cheat. Despite being caught in flagrante delicto at Churchill Downs, Medina Spirit has refused to admit wrongdoing. In fact, he hasn’t had the courtesy to say anything at all. He shirks all the public speaking onto his trainer, Bob Baffert.
Baffert is the sort of shifty character you only ever find anymore in horse racing or boxing. He is a charmer and just a little serpentine. The sort of guy who fluffs his hair instead of combing it.
Shortly after the Derby, when Medina Spirit got rung up for a sample containing the steroid, betamethasone, Baffert came out blazing.
Doping charges have trailed him throughout his career. In Baffert’s up-is-down way of thinking, more charges equals more proof that he is innocent. Or something.
In defending himself, Baffert managed to squeeze in a reference to “cancel culture.” Smart move. That ensured the story would break free of its sports context and become part of the high-volume back-and-forth that is America’s culture wars.
A few days after that, a major break in the case. Baffert discovered who’d done it. He had. Medina Spirit was being treated for skin irritation with a cream containing betamethasone.
It’s a great wonder to me how these sports types take care of their business. They are specifically forbidden from ingesting anything containing certain chemical compounds. Their livelihood depends, in part, on their ability to tell the legal cough medicine from the illegal one.
And yet all the unfortunates who get caught seem to be the sort of shoppers who walk into the local pharmacy, extend a careless arm and sweep whole shelves of pill bottles and ointments, willy nilly, into their basket.
‘Hey, does this toothpaste called ‘Jacked-Up Shine’ contain human growth hormone? Normally, I would check. But as a professional athlete, I’m just too busy.’
Maybe this is all Baffert’s fault, or the vet’s fault, or the teenager who was working the counter that day at Rite Aid’s fault. But I am choosing to believe it is Medina Spirit’s fault.
Sure, he’s only three years old. But some kids are born bad.
He’s got the look, too. Glassy eyes. Flared nostrils. A tendency to sweat profusely whenever he’s out in public. Do not tell me you would lend this horse money and expect to see any of it back.
Maybe this has been horse racing’s problem – no bad guys. This horse is a good boy and that one is a good boy and so’s that one, too. They’re all good boys.
You ever been up close to a thoroughbred? They’re terrifying. They’re all gristle and spasmodic muscle. They loom over you with this “What the hell are you looking at?” stare. In dogs, they call it “whale eyes.” It’s not a good sign.
Add in a little chemical boost and Medina Spirit is a prime baddie in the making. He’s also the favourite at Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, the second jewel in U.S. horse racing’s Triple Crown.
It seems obvious that whenever someone is caught breaking the rules, regardless of how innocently, the onus is on them to clean up the mess. But not in horse racing.
Baffert’s brilliance was in attacking the system, rather than protesting his innocence. He was the one who announced the failed test. That coincided with a multimedia campaign suggesting a variety of dark forces were arrayed against him.
His accusers were so busy parrying Baffert’s attacks, it never seems to have occurred to anyone how odd it is that a horse who failed a drug test immediately after the Kentucky Derby remains champion of the Kentucky Derby.
Baffert applied the same aggressive logic to the Preakness. When organizers suggested Medina Spirit should give their course a pass, Baffert flipped out. After threatening an injunction, Medina Spirit was allowed back in.
The really amazing thing in all this is that anyone who makes their living off horse racing seriously considered letting a story this great go to waste for, ugh, ethical reasons.
Baffert is horse racing’s Don King. Medina Spirit can be its Sonny Liston or Rocky Balboa. We have to wait to see how this turns out to decide which.
We all want to see the good guys win, except not really. There is something awfully smug about competitors who’ve done everything the right way and made good. They all have the same back story. They all sign the same endorsement deals. They earn their living making the rest of us feel bad about ourselves. For that, we are meant to uncritically adore them.
Give me a black hat any day. I like reading about the competitor who came up the ugly way, or took a clever short cut or figured out a way to game the system. This is not to say that cheaters should prosper, but that if that possibility doesn’t exist, pro sport loses a lot of its spice. If you want things done as close as possible to perfectly, stick with the Girl Guides.
Medina Spirit broke the rules and, so far, has gotten away with it.
Were you going to watch the Preakness before this story got weird? Maybe. Are you going to watch it now? Absolutely.
The sports story of 2020 was that there were no sports. Halfway through 2021, we haven’t even got a candidate for story of the year. Pro sports is in decline. It’s undeniable.
There are a lot of reasons for that. The pandemic is just the most proximate one. Another big fault line is sports’ increasing difficulty in manufacturing compelling stories. That’s what happens when the independent media becomes your lap dog and the corporate comms people begin taking over whatever remains. Good stories can’t be Frankenstein’d together in a Zoom brainstorming session. They must be organic. Corporations are not good at organic.
Medina Spirit is the sort of story sports needs now. It’s got rich people screwing each other over. It’s got an amiable anti-hero working behind the scenes to fix the results. And it’s got a tall, dark and coltish protagonist who may or may not turn out to be the villain in the end.