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Medina Spirit's noisy life ends quietly

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

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Medina Spirit stood in the Churchill Downs stable area the morning after he won the 2021 Kentucky Derby. (Ron Flatter photo)

Tucson, Ariz.

And so Medina Spirit, the winner of the Kentucky Derby – make that the disputed winner of the Kentucky Derby only seven months ago – passed away Monday morning. He suffered a heart attack at the end of a workout and dropped dead at Santa Anita. He was only 3.

It happened quietly, but it generated a lot of noise from near and far. Especially far.

“I spoke to the attending veterinarian,” said Jeff Blea, the doctor who runs the equine medical team for the California Horse Racing Board, told the Paulick Report. “When they got to him on the track, he had already expired.”

Blea made that declaration while attending a gathering in Nashville, Tenn., of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. Much of the rest of the racing industry is at the annual Global Symposium for Racing being hosted by the University of Arizona.

Everyone it seemed was far away. While so much of the sport’s establishment was occupied with a swirl of speeches, panels and cocktail parties hundreds of miles away, Medina Spirit’s life ended with a quiet gasp as he was doing his job. He had just galloped five furlongs in 1:01.4 for trainer Bob Baffert, who again found himself in the all too familiar position as a bull’s eye for the game’s pitchforks and torches.

“Very sad,” Baffert said in a text message received at 3:13 p.m. EST. Or so the phone said it was at the end of a flight from Louisville through Atlanta to Tucson. That was about two hours after Baffert’s attorney Craig Robertson, who has been in and out of courthouses to defend Baffert’s name not to mention Medina Spirit’s Derby victory, put out a statement in his client’s name.

“It is with great sadness that I am reporting Medina Spirit passed away (Monday) from a heart attack at Santa Anita following a workout,” Baffert said through Robertson. “My entire barn is devastated by the news.”

Now the personal part. I do not doubt Baffert feels that way. But that does not assuage the critics who are adamant in their belief Baffert drugged this horse to death. Literally. Whether they are right or wrong does not matter. Perception beats reality like rock beats scissors.

The Baffert haters have yet another reason to point out the horses who have died on his watch. Medina Spirit makes at least 75 since 2000, based on a 4,823-word story The Washington Post published about Baffert in June. The same story said Medina Spirit’s failed drug test after winning the Derby marked the 30th time he had been formally accused of a drug violation.

This is the circumstantial smoke that that has ignited a public fire of belief that Baffert did something wrong again. Social-media outrage already was in full flower Monday. It was as if Medina Spirit’s necropsy would be a procedural formality.

“The Santa Anita Park veterinary team, led by senior veterinarian Dr. Laurie Bohannon, immediately took blood, hair and urine samples from Medina Spirit,” track management said in its own statement. “Those samples were sent to the California Horse Racing Board. A full necropsy, as per protocol in California, run by the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, will be performed to try and ascertain the exact cause of this sudden death.”

For Baffert’s and horse racing’s ever-growing legion of critics, the result of the necropsy will be less about informing and more about confirming. Regardless of what it ultimately reveals, it will provoke a massive “I told you so,” or it will lead to cries that “he got away with it again.” Like arguments over the politics, vaccinations and the designated hitter, there will be no shades of gray.

Seemingly absent from the amplified outcry was some historical context, something to quantify the precious life of the poor horse. Not even a full-grown horse. Just a colt. Remember when Conor McGregor threw a cart through the window of a bus outside a news conference in Brooklyn? Seems like only yesterday. That was April 5, 2018, the same day Medina Spirit was foaled.

Of the 147 horses who have won the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit was only the fourth to have died at age 3. According to the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, the others were Lieutenant Gibson in 1900 (bowed tendon), Worth in 1912 (racing accident) and Swale in 1984 (possible heart attack). Now there is Medina Spirit.

The worst thing about horses is they die too young. They typically live about a third the life we do. There is the argument that humans can only screw that up. Medina Spirit will be used as another example to stop racing horses, even though most Thoroughbreds live happy and even pampered lives. As they should.

“When I saw him after the Breeders’ Cup, the horse had blossomed,” Medina Spirit’s breeder Gail Rice told Horse Racing Nation on Monday. “He was filling out. He was maturing. I was just really looking forward to his future.”

That was the last time most of us saw him, finishing second a month ago to Knicks Go in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. There were 37,692 people cheering at Del Mar that day, just as there were 51,838 fans who were roaring at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby.

All that commotion that he heard in San Diego and Louisville. Medina Spirit interrupted it quietly Monday in Arcadia. But only briefly. Now the noise around him will be very different.

Ron Flatter’s regular weekly racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s features guests at the Global Seminar for Racing in Tucson, Ariz., plus DraftKings Sportsbook’s Johnny Avello handicaps weekend races. The RFRP is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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