BALTIMORE — “Is he the blonde guy with the sunglasses?”
“Well, his hair is white, but … yeah.”
That was a question last Sunday from my sister, who doesn’t follow horse racing at all, but was able to make a pretty good guess on who this Bob Baffert guy is that I was talking about.
It’s a measure of his powerful reach into the mainstream media consciousness that people who don’t know who he is still … know who he is. The double-edged sword of Baffert’s recognizability comes from winning all the big races on one side, and having to answer for drug violations on the other.
It’s not a good look for the self-described “face of racing” heading into Saturday’s Preakness at Pimlico, where Baffert has the top two picks, Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit and Concert Tour, both of whom passed three rounds of out-of-competition blood tests as a condition for running, along with Friday’s Black-Eyed Susan favorite, Beautiful Gift.
Baffert became a Mother’s Day brunch topic when he lawyered up and headed back to Louisville to meet with Churchill Downs officials because Medina Spirit had tested positive for a regulated corticosteroid, betamethasone.
Then things got weird.
At this point in his spectacularly successful Hall of Fame career, Baffert has surrendered all benefit of a doubt when another one of his horses tests positive for something.
At best — at best — his barn is guilty of being sloppy in the handling of one of their horses (the Derby winner, no less) after Baffert vowed last year to do better on tightly monitoring what’s going in his horses.
Hmm, let’s check through the list of who or what is to blame this time:
— Environmental contamination. Shortly after the Medina Spirit news broke, Baffert said he has experience with a groom who was taking cough medicine and urinated in a stall, which led to a false positive in the horse who was housed there. Maybe something like this happened again, to Medina Spirit.
— Outside interference. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” he said last Sunday at Churchill, sounding like a conspiracy theorist. “I know everybody is not out to get me, but there’s definitely something wrong. Why is it happening? You know, there’s problems in racing, but it’s not Bob Baffert.”
— Churchill Downs somehow screwed up with its testing. “We didn’t have anything to do with this. I don’t know how it got in his system, if it was in his system, or a mistake. But we’re gonna get to the bottom of it.”
— OK, they did give it to the horse, inadvertently, because whoever the veterinarian is (they won’t name the person) who administered it apparently doesn’t know how to read the ingredients on a tube of dermatitis ointment.
— OK, they did give it to the horse, but the minuscule amount he tested for isn’t nearly enough to constitute an advantage that helped him win the Derby. And this is a legal therapeutic drug, an anti-inflammatory for sore joints, not some rocket fuel. And maybe the regulations governing racing are ridiculously stringent, while we’re at it.
It just wears you out after awhile.
After initial denial of wrongdoing, Team Baffert threw the entire PR playbook at the problem.
My favorite was blaming the whole story on “cancel culture,” as Baffert did in one TV interview, sounding a lot like a twice-impeached former President of the United States.
This is the card played nowadays by anyone who doesn’t like it when they’re held accountable for their actions.
“When Churchill Downs came out with that statement, that was pretty harsh,” Baffert said in the interview, referring to Churchill barring him from entering horses there, “and with all the noise going out … we live in a different world now. This America’s different, and it was a cancel culture kind of a thing, reviewing it.”
Unreal. Always the victim. Now we’re blaming some fictitious current state of “America,” just because authorities expect some responsibility and accountability from somebody who has all the advantages, including “we must protect the king” leniency on previous drug violations.
Trust is a fragile commodity in horse racing. Baffert is wearing his out.
Conspicuously absent from his blame list is Baffert himself.
Conspicuously absent from the Pimlico grounds for Preakness Weekend is Baffert himself, having flown home to California so as not to be a distraction.
Conspicuously present on Friday, via Twitter, were a couple of guys in cheeky t-shirts with “baffert” printed on the front, and the f’s replaced with syringes.
He’s not physically here, but he won’t go away.
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