How to talk to your friends about racing

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My friends want to know things, so they call, text, email or otherwise follow some sort of unofficial “Ask Joe” guidebook.

This happens whenever Thoroughbred racing gets attention from the real world, where most of my friends reside. They watch the Triple Crown races, maybe the Breeders’ Cup. They go to Delaware Park sometimes. They can’t wait for the return of the Fair Hill Races. It happened with American Pharoah, Justify, the fun of Funny Cide and his school bus, the sadness of Barbaro, the magic of Mine That Bird, the madness of the whole Big Brown thing, Afleet Alex’s smashup, the Artax-punching fan, those Drexel dudes and the Breeders’ Cup Pick 6 score and I’m sure I’m missing a few moments.

I do my best to answer. Sometimes it’s easy and fun, hysterical, engaging. Other times, it’s like taking a chemistry final (not that I took a chemistry final). This year, it feels like a chemistry final, under water, in Latin.

Yes, Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit apparently failed a drug test. No, the racing commission hasn’t issued a public decision. Yes, it’s “the white-haired guy.” His name is Bob Baffert. Yes, he went on Fox News. Yes, Trump called the horse a junky. No, I don’t know why. 

Then it gets serious. They want to know everything. I can’t be the only person in racing this happens to, so here’s a primer for how to talk to your friends about uncomfortable racing news – 2021 version. You may want to tell them to sit down before they read it. You should definitely sit down before you read it to them.

Betamethasone is an anti-inflammatory used a variety of ways and found in a number of veterinary products. It’s classified as a corticosteroid (not to be confused with an anabolic steroid). Commonly, a veterinarian might inject betamethasone into a joint – ankle, knee, hock, etc. In addition, betamethasone might be in a topical cream to help reduce inflammation associated with a skin condition, small wound, et cetera.

The use of betamethasone is legal, provided it doesn’t show up in a post-race sample. In Kentucky, there used to be a limit (10 picograms per milliliter of blood). Now, any level is considered a violation.

Betamethasone treatment is fairly common. Example: a horse shows signs of an ankle issue; it’s relatively minor, like a human runner whose knees flair up when they train too hard. A veterinarian can inject betamethasone (or another similar medication) into the ankle. The swelling goes down, the horse feels better, gets back to training.

Most states restrict such injections to more than 14 days before a race. Follow that guideline and betamethasone shouldn’t show up in a post-race test. Shouldn’t. Horses don’t weigh the same, don’t have the same metabolism and all joint injections are not the same. Some vets choose not to use it because of this vagueness. A cautious trainer might opt for more than 14 days. An aggressive trainer might stick to 14, or choose to push it.

Blood and urine samples are drawn from horses after they race – typically the first three finishers, but it depends on the state. Horses who finish out of the first three can be tested as well, by order of the stewards. Testing standards vary, but there are security standards in place to prevent tampering.

A picogram is a trillionth of a gram (with a t). Medina Spirit’s test apparently came back at 21 picograms per milliliter of blood. Depending on who’s talking, it’s an insignificant – or significant – amount. A horse’s body contains about 54,000 milliliters of blood so multiply 21 by 54,000 and you get how many picograms of betamethasone were in Medina Spirit after the Derby. It’s 1,134,000 (give or take). That’s still not much, even though I hate math. But the limit was created by regulatory veterinarians. There’s a reason for it. And it’s not to pick on Bob Baffert. There’s no witch hunt. No cancel culture. No sabotage.

Short detour here for rapid-fire answers.

  • Yes, Baffert’s first response was to deny any knowledge of how it happened or any knowledge of betamethasone at all.
  • Yes, his second response was to blame the test result on a skin cream containing betamethasone. 
  • Yes, his horse Gamine tested above the limit for betamethasone in October and was disqualified.
  • Yes, he blamed a previous positive test for another medication on a pain patch worn by his assistant trainer. 
  • Yes, he changed that story.
  • No, I didn’t necessarily believe him, then or now. You shouldn’t either.
  • Yes, there should be a better way to deal with all of this.

The process following a positive drug test can get cumbersome. A trainer is entitled to a split sample to confirm the test. Until that result comes back, there exists a sort of limbo. The racing commission has informed the trainer, but has not issued a public ruling. Nobody is suspended or penalized. The horse is not disqualified. If the split sample confirms the test, then the racing commission (there’s one in every state; for now, someday soon there may be a national racing authority) issues a ruling. The trainer can request a hearing, appeal any penalty, even (sometimes) go to court.  

Wrap all of this in the Triple Crown schedule where the Preakness comes two weeks after the Derby, and we have a horse running in a race while awaiting the result of a drug test.

No, it’s not a good look.