I spent half my life in horse racing. The Medina Spirit scandal lays bare why I left

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

Horses running in the Kentucky Derby have only just hit their third birthday. Those magnificent creatures on which millions are wagered and stories of glory and sentiment inspired are but enslaved toddlers. No horse at two or even three years old is physically or mentally prepared for what is forced upon it by the racing industry. Even with new measures and oversight in place, young horses continue to break down, suffer injuries that will be chronic for the rest of their lives, and are medicated when they would not otherwise be if not for the damage done by the immense pressure they are under.

Related: After 15 years at the racetrack, I can no longer watch a horse race | Elizabeth Banicki

The scandal swirling about Medina Spirit, the fifth such drug violation brought against trainer Bob Baffert in the past year, is an event that must be looked at in the context of the horse’s age. Viewing the situation as black and white, positive test or negative test, though convenient, grossly oversimplifies a real issue which is the ethical concern over drug use on young racehorses who are pushed too hard.

Medina Spirit and all the other horses who ran against him on 1 May trained and raced rigorously throughout their two-year-old year in preparation for the Derby. The findings of drugs in his and other Baffert horses’ in post-race tests tell a story that should not be dismissed based on flimsy explanations of accidental contamination. Though we must wait and see if the truth surfaces regarding Medina Spirit, what cannot be denied is that injecting steroids into the faltering joints of a young horse is common practice in racing and in Mr Baffert’s barn.

So, what does constitute “therapeutic medication”, as Baffert called betamethasone, in the practice of training young horses? Many two-year-olds are hammered through training because their three-year-old year is critical to their success as a racehorse and their future in breeding. Training is a daily balance between keeping a horse fit enough to compete, at the highest level in this case, but sound enough to be entered into races. A horse whose legs are not even close to reaching maturity but can remain cold and tight through all of this would truly be a wonder of nature. Joint injections in the ankles, knees and/or hocks of a two- or three-year-old, following a year of high-intensity training and racing which repeatedly brought that horse to the brink of its capacity, is not therapy. The purpose is not to heal or to improve quality of life. The real goal is to temporarily boost performance to make a profit and gain prestige. When I hear Baffert say these horses are like his children, I ask: Is this how he treats his children? It evokes sentiment and makes a great soundbite, but I question the authenticity.

Bob Baffert
Bob Baffert, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirt, speaks with assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Photograph: Bryan Woolston/Reuters

When a two-year-old future racehorse goes through a sale before ever debuting in a race, they might “preview” for buyers. Anyone looking to purchase a racehorse is clearly looking for a fast horse, so what better way to determine how efficiently a horse moves then to watch it run at its peak speed. “Good” two-year-olds might preview an eighth of a mile in just over nine seconds, or a quarter in maybe less than 20. These works are called “bullets”, and it must be recognized by the public that they are done on the lightweight, soft, undeveloped bone and tissue of a baby horse.

It must also be acknowledged that buyers pay millions for these two-year-olds, and while there are numerous hardworking donation-based thoroughbred rescues across the United States, thousands of racehorses who have exited the industry due to injuries sustained during racing languish ignored and forgotten in the filthy and disease-infested hell of the slaughter pipelines. If Mr Baffert is feeling cancelled by an industry that once loved and pampered him but now coldly turns its back, well, he has lots of company. The difference is he enjoys the privilege of free will and the opportunity to air his grievances about the unfairness of it all.

For years I rode babies on the track. For some of those years they were Baffert babies. Like bony-kneed children, they stumbled and zigzagged lost and wide-eyed down the stretch by the grandstand. We galloped in pairs and threesomes, shoulder to shoulder so that our stirrups clanked, and the wind streamed tears from the corners of our eyes. Sounds of hooves thudding in the dirt and the rhythmic blowing of winded horses filled my head. We were encouraged to “make them gallop”, meaning push them to exert, and we did by kissing and clicking into their ears, driving them forward, whipping them. Some had breathing issues and would be so exhausted they felt nearly ready to collapse beneath you. Some came off the gallops unsound. Sometimes they did not return to training at all. The body of a racehorse is remarkably fragile. The shins and ankles, particularly of a baby, are hardly thicker than a man’s wrist. But even for the horses who uphold well, racing is attrition warfare.

If Mr Baffert is feeling cancelled by an industry that once loved and pampered him but now coldly turns its back, well, he has lots of company.

Two-year-old racing and previewing at sales should be banned entirely. Future racehorses should not leave the farm prior to turning three. The breeding industry needs serious regulatory overhaul to limit the number of foals each year. Barring special circumstances for necessary medication, drug-free light training and starter races at three-years-old is a more than reasonable approach and a far healthier and safer one for the horses. If this sounds radical to people in the industry, it is mostly because it’s different from the way things have always been done and change is never easy. Even more so for the racing world where so much is based in tradition and the good old days. Baffert told Fox News that this is a different America, and he is right. At least when it comes to horse racing, let us hope so.

I both cherish and regret my time at the track. Nothing I have done since or will ever do can compare to being on a racehorse. I started my near two-decade career as an exercise rider when I was 15 years old. I know what it feels like to be a baby at the track. Even now at almost 40, my innermost identity is still tied to my track life. But I work to come to terms with whatever damage I may have done to horses in the name of the sport. In the name of my own legacy. I left racing because as I grew older, I began to recognize the track as an abusive place for horses. Not entirely or always intentionally but to a great degree, nonetheless. Bob Baffert and others who push horses too hard too early are perpetrators of that abuse and there must be accountability.

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