It's probably a real positive that Thoroughbred health headlines at the close of the racing year are not about racing fatalities, which are down, but about racing disqualifications through drug tests. Several drug related stories have been hitting the headlines while Santa Anita celebrates the end of a successful fall meet with zero fatalities during races and training. Three of these instances involve horses trained by Bob Baffert. Yet, all of these testing issues involve only trace amounts of banned chemicals, and, in a couple of instances, COVID-19 may actually have been the culprit.
At West Virginia's Charles Town races on September 17, two winning horses tested positive for trace amounts of "bath salts," a combination of fentanyl and eutylone. The tracks Board of Stewards pointed out that the drugs were likely cases of contamination, in that the identical tests were obtained from horses who were unrelated apart from being handled before the tests by the same groom, who subsequently refused to take a drug test. The mitigating circumstances prevented the two trainers from suffering the extreme penalties reserved for those who dope horses with Class 1, Category A substances.
Meanwhile, in California, a Thoroughbred named MERNEITH, who is trained by Bob Baffert, finished second in a Del Mar race on July 25 and subsequently tested positive for trace amounts of Dextrorphan—cough medicine. The groom who had handled the horse before the race had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and had self-administered medicines containing the drug.
Part of the reason this was hard news for Baffert and his team was that this follows another failed drug test for GAMINE after her performance in the Kentucky Oaks. The medication in her system itself is a legal anti-inflammatory, though it cannot be present four days prior to a race. Baffert's team had anticipated that the medication would have completely exited her bloodstream prior to the test. The same horse was disqualified from her May 2 allowance win in Arkansas when she tested positive for trace amounts of a painkiller that was present in a patch worn by assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes.
Regardless of the outcome of the tests and who is ultimately responsible, two things can be determined with absolute certainty from this spate of positive tests. One, racetracks and stewards are administering required drug tests scrupulously, which are measures needed to protect horses as well as the integrity of races. Two, these tests are extremely sensitive. So if you're on strong medication, don't rub your horse in the paddock for luck before a race.
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