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What is Medina Spirit’s legacy following his sudden death? The answer is uncertain

Medina Spirit, with jockey John Velazquez, competes in the Preakness Stakes.
Medina Spirit, with jockey John Velazquez, ran in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on May 15.
(Nick Wass / Associated Press)

Few horses have had such a short yet newsworthy career as Medina Spirit. And, a day after his sudden death after a workout at Santa Anita, many are wondering how his story will eventually be told.

Will he be the underdog horse that brought trainer Bob Baffert his record-setting seventh Kentucky Derby win? Or will he be the second horse ever disqualified post-race in the 147-year history of the Derby?

Regardless of the outcome, his 3-year-old life started with an unexpected meeting and ended with a tragic and unforeseen outcome.

Up next will be a necropsy, an autopsy performed on animals, which will zero in on the cause of his death Monday morning. Indications point to a cardiovascular event, but in this case, nothing will be left to guesswork.

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Scott Chaney, executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, says this might be the most important necropsy the CHRB has ever commissioned, but he says it with a qualification.

“It certainly will be the most scrutinized, but every fatality is important,” Chaney said. “Sudden deaths are always more complicated and difficult than musculoskeletal ones.”

The body of Medina Spirit was shipped to the UC Davis laboratory in San Bernardino on Monday, while tissue, blood and urine samples were sent to the Maddy Lab at the main campus of UC Davis.

The necropsy will be receiving heightened attention including additional samples sent to labs outside of California, according to Jeff Blea, equine medical director of the CHRB.

“The Maddy Lab is the gold standard in this country, if not the world,” Blea said. “So, we are very lucky to have it here. And we will be using multiple departments at Davis to make sure everything is covered. But, we’ll also be sending samples out to other labs, just for a second and third set of eyes.”

An attorney representing Bob Baffert says there is evidence Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit was given medication topically, not by injection.

One of those will be at the University of Minnesota, which has a specialty in cardiovascular diagnosis.

While the likelihood is that the initial diagnosis was correct, it’s not a certainty. A 2011 study of sudden deaths on almost 300 horses showed that the cause of death was definitively determined in 53% of the cases, and presumed in 25% more. Of the 53% of definitively diagnosed sudden death cases, a cadiovascular or cardiopulmonary cause occurred 56% of the time.

“We just have to rely on the science and the process,” Blea said.

There is no timetable for the results, but sudden death necropsies can take two to three months or longer.

Medina Spirit was not the first Kentucky Derby winner to experience sudden death in the same year as his win. In 1984, Swale collapsed and died nine days after winning the Belmont Stakes and a month after winning the Derby. Immediately, there was unfounded speculation of foul play, but it was determined the colt died of heart failure.

While the answers will rest with the science, the future of the sport may well rest with finding a definitive cause of death as the industry and fans wrestle with the loss of one of its biggest stars, albeit one draped in controversy.

Baffert, who told The Times on Tuesday that he had nothing to add beyond Monday’s statement of “deeply mourning his loss,” has talked in the past about the Cinderella stories that can come from racing. Amr Zedan, Medina Spirit’s owner, was an owner in search of a miracle when he had an unexpected meeting with Baffert.

Bob Baffert looks out from his barn before a workout at Churchill Downs.
Bob Baffert looks out from his barn before a workout at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

“I ran into him at an airport in Dubai on my way to the Saudi Cup,” Baffert said in May. “[I hear someone say] ‘Hey. Bob,’ in the airport and it was him. We sat down there and we just talked for two hours while he was waiting for his flight. He said, ‘I was thinking, maybe I’ll get back in and maybe we can get together and win the Derby. And I go, ‘Yeah, right sure.’

“Then all of a sudden, he hooks up with Gary Young, the [bloodstock] agent, and Taylor Made [Farm] and Frank Taylor. … They find this little horse. We looked at him, and, hey, we liked him.”

That horse was Medina Spirit, a $35,000 Florida-bred purchase sired by Protonico, whose stud fee was only $5,000. By comparison, Authentic, Baffert’s 2020 Kentucky Derby winner, was sired by Into Mischief, who goes for $250,000 a mating. It’s partly because of an undervalued sire that Medina Spirit was still in training and not retired after his 3-year-old career such as Authentic. Medina Spirit was being pointed to the San Antonio Stakes on Dec. 26 at Santa Anita. The goal was to run him in the $20-million Saudi Cup on Feb. 26 in Saudi Arabia.

After the horse started training, he was gaining more attention than such a low purchase horse normally gets.

“I have him down at Los Alamitos,” Baffert recalled. “My assistant down there says, ‘You know that horse they didn’t give much for? I think he’s OK.” And sure enough he broke his maiden.”

Medina Spirit won five of his 10 lifetime races including the Grade 1 Awesome Again and, of course, the Kentucky Derby. His last race was a second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic running against older horses. He earned a little more than $3.5 million.

He was an unexpected winner of the Kentucky Derby, with most of the prerace attention going to Essential Quality, Hot Rod Charlie and Rock Your World. Medina Spirit went to the lead and was expected to give it up in the stretch of the 1¼-mile race, but he wouldn’t yield.

Trainer Bob Baffert earns a record seventh Kentucky Derby win when Medina Spirit holds of Mandoulan for a victory in the 147th Running of the Roses.

“He’s a fighter,” said his jockey John Velazquez in May. “I know he was going to fight anybody who would come to him. Every time I asked him for more, he kept going more and more. That’s all you can ask for a horse.”

The jubilation of the Derby win was loud and long until a week later when Baffert was informed that the colt tested positive for betamethasone, a legal anti-inflammatory that is not allowed on race day. What has ensued has been challenges to the testing, challenges to the rules, lots of lawyers, and a Kentucky Horse Racing Commission that still has not set a hearing for Baffert or addressed the idea if Medina Spirit will remain the winner of the Kentucky Derby.

How this plays out, and how Medina Spirit is remembered, will most likely be decided by scientists and lawyers. How the public will view things is much more complicated.


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