The number of people inclined to nod along when Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert says, “Just trust me,” is getting smaller and smaller these days. First there was Justify, then Charlatan/Gamine, then Merneith, then Gamine again, and now Medina Spirit – five drug violations in the past year and six in recent memory. This time, Baffert told media on Sunday, he was getting out in front of the issue, not waiting for a split sample test came back positive before announcing that his horse had failed a post-race test. He has since told mainstream media that he didn’t want to repeat his mistakes in the Justify case, where he and the California Horse Racing Board were widely criticized for keeping the colt’s test for scopolamine a secret until the New York Times reported on it months later.
The advantage of being transparent about something like this is that you can control the narrative, and since the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission isn’t permitted to discuss a positive before a split sample test and a ruling, Baffert and his legal team have arguably been able to do just that. Baffert has made quite the media tour since Sunday morning, appearing on CBS, Fox News, and elsewhere to tell his side of the story, which seemed to mostly amount to ‘I don’t know what happened but testing is too strict.’
When Baffert’s public stance evolved from ‘I didn’t do it’ to ‘Ok, I did it, but it was a mistake,’ there was ample opportunity to keep a strong public front. On Tuesday, a statement distributed via Baffert attorney Craig Robertson blamed the betamethasone positive on Otomax, an anti-fungal cream made for dogs which contains betamethasone. This, Robertson said, was used on dermatitis on Medina Spirit after the Santa Anita Derby daily until the day before the Kentucky Derby.
“As I have stated, my investigation is continuing and we do not know for sure if this ointment was the cause of the test results, or if the test results are even accurate, as they have yet to be confirmed by the split sample,” read Baffert’s Tuesday statement. “However, again, I have been told that a finding of a small amount, such as 21 picograms, could be consistent with application of this type of ointment. I intend to continue to investigate and I will continue to be transparent.”
So, be transparent.
The beautiful thing about the administration of a prescription therapeutic drug in either California or Kentucky is that it should leave quite a paper trail. First, there would be the prescription itself, which would appear on the box the ointment container came in (the same box that lists betamethasone as an ingredient) or possibly the tube itself (which also lists the ointment’s ingredients). The prescription would include a date, instructions for use, and the veterinarian’s name. Then, administration of a prescription to a horse in California should trigger a daily treatment report to the California Horse Racing Board. Treatment of a Derby horse in Kentucky would also trigger a daily treatment report, given to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. The prescribing veterinarian would also have a record of dispensing the medication – probably more than once, as it comes in a small container intended for dogs – alongside a diagnosis and dates.
Unlike other types of records, veterinary records that are provided in the course of reporting to the state racing commissions do not become subject to public records requests. In general terms, veterinary records are owned by the owner or manager of the animal, not the veterinarian, clinic, or any third party. So Kentucky and California cannot release what records they have (or don’t have) about this lengthy prescription treatment, but Baffert could. Likewise, he could authorize the release of his veterinarian’s records. In fact, he was asked during Sunday’s news conference whether he planned to release his records and his response was that he intended to release them to the Kentucky commission.
When this reporter asked whether there were treatment reports submitted to the CHRB for Otomax, Robertson responded with the following: “I do not know. As you can imagine I have had my hands full. What I do have are the vet records showing the treatment.”
When asked whether Baffert intended to provide evidence of the vet’s prescription of Otomax, Robertson replied “We have those vet records and have provided them to Pimlico.”
While it’s certainly understandable that Baffert doesn’t want the general public, with its lack of veterinary knowledge, rifling through his horse’s medical history, he’s the one who started this.
When asked whether the prescribing veterinarian, who so far Baffert has declined to name, had a rationale for choosing Otomax as a treatment for skin disease over other treatments that don’t contain betamethasone, Robertson said he didn’t know.
A photo provided with Tuesday’s statement showed an image of a dark bay horse’s right hindquarter, dotted with areas of skin irritation characteristic of the dermatitis described by Baffert. What wasn’t specified in the statement was the date the photo was taken; since it was provided as evidence of a condition the horse was treated for from around the April 3 Santa Anita Derby until the day before the May 1 Kentucky Derby, one may assume it was intended to show the condition as it appeared during that timeframe. However, metadata on the image indicates it was taken with an iPhone around 7 a.m. on May 11. If Baffert’s veterinarian had been made available to the press and the public, it would be logical to ask why four weeks’ worth of prescription treatment had apparently not resolved the issue, which was also visible in images and video of the horse taken at Pimlico Wednesday morning.
A follow-up question asking Robertson about the timing of the image was not answered.
As a reporter, I can appreciate any subject’s attempts to be transparent – it’s supposed to make my job easier. But true transparency, particularly from someone who hasn’t always provided it, means more than just “trust me.”
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