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Medina Spirit death: why have so many horses died at Santa Anita

Controversy continues to surround the storied California Race Track and at the center of the latest storm we find a familiar face in Bob Baffert

FILE PHOTO: May 1, 2021; Louisville, Kentucky, USA; John Velazquez guides Medina Spirit to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports/File Photo
Jamie RhodesUSA TODAY Sports

Yet another horse has died while racing or training at Santa Anita Race Track in California. This marks the 20th death in the calendar year. But this latest was not just any horse, this was the Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, who reportedly suffered a sudden heart attack during a training session. In May, the equine world was embroiled in controversy when after winning the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit failed a post-race drug test, leading to accusations of deliberate doping by trainer Bob Baffert.

The three year old colt, owned by Amr Zedan of Saudi Arabia and one of the foals grandsired by legendary European champion Giants Causeway, finished in the top three in all nine of his 2021 starts. Five of those starts were at the Santa Anita racetrack, which had also become a top training spot for the horse.

The California Race Track has developed a negative reputation after seeing 37 horses die in 2019. That year saw the park close briefly for an investigation which saw the Los Angeles District Attorney conclude that there was no criminal wrongdoing. The following year saw 20 further horses die, a number that has been equalled this year.

This latest tragedy has seen calls for a halt to horse racing to be instituted by PETA. Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said, “Horses’ lives are at risk. We wouldn’t suggest that an airplane should be allowed to take off if half the seat belts hadn’t been installed yet. Why should horses be raced if every precaution hasn’t been taken?”

Officials at The Stronach Group, owners of Santa Anita Race Track, insist that they are committed to building the “safest possible racing and track conditions in the industry,” adding that if the deaths were caused by something within the company’s control, it will take additional corrective steps.

PETA claims that seven of Baffert’s horses have died mysteriously over 16 months due to “his reckless and routine habit of administering the powerful hormone thyroxine to horses without thyroid condition. Baffert has continued to be embroiled in drug controversies,” Guillermo stated, adding that “all of Medina Spirit’s veterinary records must be seized, and a thorough investigation must be conducted.”

The California Horse Racing Board's equine medical director Jeff Blea reported that the on-site veterinarian, Dr. Laurie Bohannon, took hair, urine and blood samples from the colt for forensic and toxicology. Of the 71 racing deaths of thoroughbreds and American quarter horses in California this year, thirteen percent have been sudden deaths. “Horses’ vascular systems are complicated,” said Blea. “Sudden death necropsies are more in depth but sometimes fail to tell you what happened conclusively.”

Of today’s events, Blea described, “Right after the wire, he looked odd, and you could see the horse stagger and then he just laid down past the wire. Track vets got to him right away, but he was already gone. These types of things are presumed to be cardiovascular events.”

The doping allegations that surrounded Medina Spirit’s positive drug testing earlier in the year saw trainer Bob Baffert get a two year ban by Churchill Downs, a move which the trainer criticised as “harsh” and “cancel culture”. But this isn’t the first time that Baffert has faced these questions. Over four decades, 30 of his horses have failed drug tests including five in a recent 13-month period.

In addition to Medina Spirit, three-year-old filly Gamine and Triple Crown winner Justify also tested positive. After the protracted investigation over the Justify result, California Horse Racing Board chairman Chuck Winner employed Baffert to train his horses. The inquiry was quietly disposed of behind closed doors after Justify’s breeding rights were sold for $60 million.

In a statement released concerning the sudden death of Medina Spirit, Baffert said, “My entire barn is devastated by this news. Medina Spirit was a great champion, a member of our family who was loved by all, and we are deeply mourning his loss. I will always cherish the proud and personal memories of Medina Spirit and his tremendous spirit."


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