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Dianne Feinstein calls for ‘transparent examination’ into Medina Spirit’s death

Kentucky Derby hopeful Medina Spirit works out at Churchill Downs Tuesday.
Medina Spirit works out at Churchill Downs in April days before winning the Kentucky Derby.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

There is little doubt that the search for answers on why Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit suddenly died on Monday after a workout at Santa Anita has been at the forefront of racing this week. But now the heat has been turned up even more as it has gained the attention of California’s senior U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein.

“Seeing any horse die on the race track is tragic, but the sudden death of a champion horse like Medina Spirit is particularly jarring,” Feinstein told The Times. “A thorough and transparent examination into the death is necessary to determine the cause of death and ensure that all education and training protocols were followed.”

Feinstein was a major voice during the 2019 horse fatality spike at Santa Anita, when 37 horses died during the year. Twice she called for the suspension of racing at Santa Anita, once on June 10 when six horses died in 23 days and again after the Breeders’ Cup, when Mongolian Groom died because of the result of injuries in the Classic.

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Medina Spirit, winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby, died Monday morning while breezing at Santa Anita. No cause of death was announced.

The California Horse Racing Board also asked Santa Anita to suspend racing two weeks before the end of its season, but the track declined. The CHRB has since received legislative authority to shut down a track on short notice.

This time, no one is blaming Santa Anita, which has significantly reduced its fatalities, with 19 so far this calendar year.

Feinstein has recognized the improvement in California racing since the crisis in 2019.

“Governor [Gavin] Newsom has transformed the California Horse Racing Board and its staff over the last couple of years and I expect they’ll treat this matter with the seriousness and professionalism it deserves,” Feinstein said.

Only two of the members of the Board in early 2019 remain on the seven-member group — Dennis Alfieri and Alex Solis. Since then, the CHRB also has a new executive director, assistant executive director and this year named a new equine medical director.

“Unfortunately, [Medina Spirit’s] death and the recent spike in deaths at another track, Laurel Park in Maryland, illustrate why it was important for Congress to pass federal legislation last year to create uniform standards in horse racing,” Feinstein said.

Medina Spirit, the 2021 Kentucky Derby winner, died at Santa Anita on Monday. Here’s what you need to know about the Bob Baffert-trained thoroughbred.

Feinstein was a co-sponsor of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which is supposed to bring uniform safety and medication standards to an industry not known for embracing change. On Tuesday, HISA announced a proposed takeover of out-of-competition drug testing in July 2022 and race day testing at the beginning of 2023.

There are several lawsuits challenging the partial federal takeover of state regulators which could hold up the start of the program. HISA is also supposed to standardize rules across all jurisdictions but admittedly states can impose tougher rules and penalties making the standardization more about setting minimums.

“I look forward to the implementation of the new national horse racing authority in July,” Feinstein said. “It can’t come soon enough. Uniform standards — and strict enforcement of those standards — are necessary to make horse racing safer for horses, jockeys and others who participate in the industry. It may be that other steps are necessary, but this is a good and overdue measure.”

As for now, the necropsy of Medina Spirit is in the hands of the Maddy Lab, run by UC Davis.

Dr. Jeff Blea, equine medical director of the CHRB, called the facility the “best in the country if not the world.”

However, there is no guarantee that the Maddy Lab will be one of those chosen to administer HISA testing.

Medina Spirit, who died Monday at Santa Anita, was an underdog who won the Kentucky Derby. But a potential disqualification could alter how he is perceived.

In an effort to show how important — and different — this necropsy is to racing, samples will be sent to other labs outside the state for a fresh set of eyes and compare to the conclusions arrived at UC Davis.

Medina Spirit’s death is considered a “sudden death” because there was no apparent musculoskeletal cause, known as a breakdown. Veterinarians are almost always correct in their immediate evaluation of those fatalities. But, when a horse just dies on the track or in the stable area, and euthanasia is not required, diagnosing the cause is more difficult. Added tests and evaluations are needed, causing the length of the necropsy to go two to three months or longer.

Adding to the scrutiny is that Medina Spirit, and his trainer Bob Baffert, are the subject of possible sanctions after the colt tested positive for betamethasone, a legal anti-inflammatory that is not legal on race day. It’s the contention of Baffert’s attorneys that the medication was administered by an ointment to treat a rash and not by injection into a joint, which is how they say the regulation is written. Neither Baffert nor the horse have been charged with any wrongdoing by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

Racing gets dragged even deeper into its maelstrom as it must contemplate the public perception of taking away a Kentucky Derby win from a dead horse.

The CHRB has promised this necropsy will take no short cuts while at the same time realizing there is a sense of urgency to it.

It’s not lost on anyone that even Washington will be following the results.


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