Letter To The Editor: Baffert Scandal Demonstrates What NCAA Would Call ‘Lack Of Institutional Control’

Do you remember the beginning of Aladdin, when the genie warns Aladdin to be specific with his wishes, otherwise he may not get what he intended? Does anyone else in the Thoroughbred industry feel like the last two weeks have been an endless barrage of wishes for racing gone wrong?

“I wish racing would get more mainstream media attention.”
Ok, but it will be about yet another scandal.

“I wish more people saw the need for national uniformity, consistency, and better drug testing.”
Sure, but it will be because of a drug positive on the sport’s largest stage.

“I wish we had an underdog to cheer for, a horse the sold for a reasonable price beating the million-dollar yearlings.” Absolutely, but it’s still going to be trained by a “super trainer” and comes with a side of scandal.

Just once, wouldn’t it be nice if our wishes for racing could come to fruition, exactly as we want them to, in a positive and beneficial way?

I am far from the first person to offer commentary on the Derby scandal and ensuing fallout, and most certainly won’t be the last. While many have shared their frustration, disappointment, disgust, etc., there is still a shocking number of people defending the situation, which (based on current information and admissions) seems fairly indefensible.

The best case scenario right now, assuming you believe the most current information provided by Bob Baffert, is that he (or his staff) gave a topical with an active ingredient that is a regulated substance inside the recommended withdrawal window. Then, it took him two and a half days to discover that it had been administered. He called a press conference, broke the news of the positive himself, swore the horse had never had the drug, and seemingly didn’t bother to check the treatment records for the horse prior to casting doubt over the integrity of post-race sample.

Best case, Baffert is so uninvolved in his own shed row that he didn’t know what was being administered, what was in that substance, or who to ask to find that information out. Because that answer should not have been hard to find before a press conference. I’m not going to be a “conspiracy therapist” and make accusations about the plausibility of this chain of events (though Natalie Voss brought up several excellent points in her piece “Show Us The Paper, Bob: Records To Back Up Baffert’s Story Remain A Matter Of Trust”). I am simply going to take this admission of guilt for what it is, and what it is happens to be entirely inexcusable for any trainer, especially one of his caliber.

I see people saying things like, “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” or, “nobody’s perfect”. But following the rules of a job you are paid (quite well) to do so as to not jeopardize your results is not perfection. It is adequacy. And in this case, Bob Baffert has fallen woefully short. Hall of Fame trainer, two-time Triple Crown winner, seven-time Kentucky Derby winner, cannot even meet the bare minimum expectation of a trainer. And yet I see his actions being defended.

To my fellow owners and breeders, imagine this scenario on a breeding farm — your farm manager gives a substance to your pregnant mare that damages the foal in utero, and the excuse is they didn’t know the active ingredient. Is that level of ignorance acceptable to you? The vet that prescribed it did so knowing the mare was pregnant. Is that acceptable to you? Or would you move your horses to a different farm with a different vet? As trainer, the burden of responsibility falls to you — to hire a qualified staff, to employ competent vets. If you fail to do so, their failings are your own, whether or not you personally administered the medication.

Looking back at the last year of violations, across many jurisdictions, brings to mind a category of penalty that does not exist in racing, but does in the NCAA. They would call it a “lack of institutional control.” The determination of this severe infraction is made when an institution fails to display (source ncaa.org):

  • Adequate compliance measures
  • Appropriate education on those compliance measures
  • Sufficient monitoring to ensure the compliance measures are followed
  • Swift action upon learning of a violation

Sound familiar? Stating you don’t know what betamethasone is used for, despite being cited in the last year for the use of that drug at the same track is not merely “failure to monitor”. These actions show a laissez-faire attitude towards drug regulations that this sport cannot allow.

The justification of “how small a picogram is” becomes invalid when you look at how little concern was shown for withdrawal windows and regulated substances. Trainers are aware of the sensitivity of testing; Baffert more than most. If you had two drug positives in one day from incidental contact with a stable employee, you would think you’d be well aware that substances applied to the skin will be absorbed and show up on testing.

I’ve seen it said that Baffert wouldn’t have risked an overage at the Kentucky Derby because he knows the stakes. Though, by his own admission he did in fact administer the substance, so does he know the stakes?

Throughout his career, and particularly in the last year, he has been Teflon. Nothing sticks. Positive tests are hidden or he gets a proverbial slap on the wrist. Based on past precedent, what reason does he have to think anything would be different this time? And even if he was banned for life, he still retires comfortably. He can watch this industry burn around him in the pursuit of records, and know that it doesn’t matter for him. Those of us a few decades younger seeking to build careers in this industry simply don’t have that luxury. Unfortunately, we largely also lack the ability to fight the fire he set.

Whether betamethasone should be allowed at the track at all, or completely unregulated, is irrelevant right now. Whether we should test to picograms is irrelevant right now. Baffert admitted to administering the substance, with no regard for withdrawal recommendations. The time to change those rules is not when you get caught. Whether or not the amount in the horse’s system was performance enhancing is not the question. The threshold is established and the information is readily available, and should factor into treatment decisions.

If a similar drug positive happened to one of the “little guys,” there would be no news coverage, no press tour proclaiming innocence. There would simply be punishment. Fines and suspensions are routinely handed out as the consequence of a drug violation, no matter how minor the violation or robust the reasoning. Whether Baffert has dodged these ramifications because of his success or his legal team, it is a ridiculous double standard within the training ranks.

Yesterday, Baffert requested racing fans “not rush to judgement” as he reiterated the topical administration of betamethasone was the only “possible” exposure so far. For someone who has dodged penalties on far more tenuous “contamination” stories, I wonder what ‘get out of jail free’ card he’s hoping will appear. He paired the reiteration of the statement that neither his barn nor veterinarians administered betamethasone with the statement that it was administered topically. He acknowledged that he could have handled the press conference he called better, but I have yet to see him acknowledge he could have run his barn better. While misstating something in a press conference gives the media a soundbite to run with, disregard for drug policies leads to the press conference in the first place. By rectifying the latter, you can entirely avoid the former.

So where do we go from here? HISA is just a step, and it’s still a long way off. We need a pubic relations department for our industry, we need uniform drug policies, we need transparency, we need tighter surveillance. By eliminating the question as to how a horse tests positive, racing can more harshly punish wrongdoers with the clear conscious of knowing they were at fault. By responding swiftly and appropriately to issues like this, racing can easily refute welfare claims about drugged up horses being run into the ground, and maybe encourage participation and growth from our fan base.

Graham Motion suggested on Twitter that perhaps racing needs/needed to hit rock bottom to improve. While I would like to have optimism that maybe this is the rock bottom needed to right the ship, hope seems Sisyphean when racing appears to be sitting at rock bottom holding a shovel yet again.

–Erin O’Keefe, Farm Manager & Bloodstock Services, BTE Stables

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