Cheating Isn't Winning

What meaning does winning have if you have to cheat to get there?

June 25, 2021 (published)
Photo courtesy of Depositphotos

A lovely horse won the 147th Kentucky Derby in May. The American Thoroughbred's name is Medina Spirit, and he certainly has spirit. With post-time odds of 12–1, he was not expected to win, but he did.

He also has a trainer who may or may not have cheated by giving him a therapeutic medication not allowed on race day.

Fact: Medina Spirit failed his first post-race drug test. Later he failed his second drug test.

Any place there is a competition to win, there will be cheaters, including dog shows, sheep shows, and rabbit shows, although I have no idea how you can cheat at a rabbit show. Dog conformation handlers can bleach or dye the coat to make it lighter or darker; they can give drugs to calm down dogs who don't like to be touched; competition handlers can give drugs to dogs to excite them so that they will run faster and jump farther. Poodles can get hair extensions, which is simply ridiculous.

Technically, though, if you dope a horse or a person, their ability to win is not left to chance or strength. It's based on cheating, plain and simple, just like the unrepentant winner/loser of seven Tours De France.

Lance Armstrong is by far not the only sports player to get caught doping; he is just the most egregious example. Think of Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi, Ryan Braun: if the names of these men sound familiar to you and you're not a baseball fan, it may be because they were caught doping before Major Leage Baseball banned the use of performance-enhancing steroids in 2005. It was banned because prior to 2005 MLB had an unwritten rule against it - not a formal policy - and those players broke it. Hence, the feats of these guys will go down in baseball history with an asterisk by their name, pointing out that they were cheating even though it was an unwritten rule. Was that cheating? Depends on who you ask, and when.

At his first post-race drug test, Medina Spirit tested positive for betamethasone, a type of cortisone-based steroid that effectively eliminates itching in allergic animals and is sometimes used to relieve joint pain from arthritis by decreasing inflammation. 

Fact: There is no evidence that betamethasone is performance enhancing or dangerous, or that picograms detected in a sample even matters toward the outcome of a race.

Churchill Downs in Louisville is where the Kentucky Derby takes place, where people dress in formal attire and women wear beautiful, view-obstructing hats while sipping mint juleps. The winner of this society event gets all kinds of recognition, and rightly so. It's a big deal! The trainer of Medina Spirit, Bob Baffert, has had seven wins at the Derby. That's a lot of wins, and a lot of people are jealous of that status.

Fact: In Kentucky, no betamethasone is allowed in racing horses on a race day test. There are withdrawal times for betamethasone before race day.

In Kentucky, a veterinarian is allowed to inject betamethasone in joints in certain doses up to 2 weeks before race day. Medina Spirit had 21 picograms of betamethasone in his post-race blood test. A picogram is one-trillionth of a gram.

It's probably too tiny an amount to do anything much. If it was given on purpose to cheat, it's a pretty lousy effort. So who gave the betamethasone to Medina Spirit? Bob Baffert first said that Medina Spirit was never treated with betamethasone. Then he said that it was given to the horse topically in a prescription cream called Otomax to clear up a bit of a skin issue. Otomax, as the name implies, is meant to be put in ears, but can be applied to skin.

Baffert said he didn't know that Otomax contained betamethasone. This point may be where it all falls apart for Baffert.

An inducted member of the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame, Baffert has been around horses since he was 10. He is now 68. He has a degree from the University of Arizona's Race Track Industry Program. He has trained many, many horses who won big races. By the time Medina Spirit failed his drug test, 31 of Baffert's horses had failed those drug tests over the course of 40 years, four as recently as last year. Some of those tests were overturned, others were upheld with fines and penalties applied.

Not every horse is subjected to drug testing after a race. Often it's only the winners and maybe one or two other horses that are tested. So, as a trainer, if you have a lot of winners, your horses are tested frequently.

Does anyone believe that if a veterinarian prescribed Otomax for topical use in a Derby horse that Baffert wouldn't have been told that the medication needed to be discontinued well before the race to avoid a positive test? 

People who know that much about horses - those who live in the rarified air of numerous wins and clients for whom money is no object - should know that. Of course, just because he should know it doesn't mean he does, or that he cares. I don't believe for one minute that Baffert didn't know Otomax would cause a positive test, but it could have been given by anyone in his barn.

So Baffert has been banned from racing in Kentucky for the next two years by the company Churchill Downs, which operates many race tracks including the one called Churchill Downs where the Kentucky Derby is held. The ban has no effect on tracks that are not owned by Churchill Downs. Baffert is appealing and has filed a lawsuit requesting additional samples for testing to prove that the source was topical, and not injectable, betamethasone.

Fact: Some drug violations are accidents. Some are not.

For those that are not, why? Why do people cheat? Because they win more often. Pretty simple. How do they live with themselves? If Armstrong is any indication, quite easily, thankyouverymuch. He doesn't care if he is the world's poster boy for cheating. He contends that everybody else was doing it and he'd do it again. Was everyone else in his seven Tours de France doping? We don't know. Only they do.

We also need to remember that we do not yet know all the facts about Medina Spirit's failure to pass the drug test. Who knows what information will come out in the near future. If you jumped on the bandwagon to damn all horseracing to hell, get off the wagon. Get facts, not conjecture, not assumption. Just the facts, ma'am.

But here's the thing. 

I don't much care about one race, but I care deeply about ethical competition and safety for animals. I care about a solid win from a horse or a dog at an agility competition, and about animals that have been well trained and are in good physical and emotional health. I care deeply about playing by the rules and I have never been able to understand why some people do not. I care about having a level playing field in which a win is valid. Without rules, the playing field is bumpety bumpety and someone is sure to trip, and it better not be the innocent horse.

If someone "wins" a competition by cheating, they don't win. What meaning does winning have if you have to cheat to get there? You won't ever know what would have happened if you hadn't cheated. So you lose because in this particular competition you were not the best. Get over it! Get out there and try it again. Do you want an asterisk by your name, never to be removed from your reputation? The kind of win you get by cheating is just a glittery cubic zirconia in a tray of diamonds: attractive, but not the real thing.


James Bennett
July 3, 2021

My story begins about 1985, Port Lincoln, South Australia. I was asked by my boss who was upcountry to respond to a horse trainer. The trainer phoned me the evening before the Port Lincoln Cup asking if I would give a horse an injection of dexamethasone (no reason given). I said no. Next day I'm the vet at the racetrack. I followed each race in a vehicle. Main race starts and I can hear the broadcast: 'Honey Rock' is in the lead, 'Honey Rock'has won, 'Honey Rock' has collapsed on the finishing line. I get to this horse and it flat out, sweat pouring off it, trembling, mouth breathing, major distress. Announcer says the vet is in attendance, broadcast all over Australia, The stewards who ran the event are all around the horse saying 'Do something'. Then they say 'It's azoturia, it's azoturia'. What does one do? Give it a shot of dexamethasone! No one asked to take a blood sample. The horse took about 20 minutes and eventually got up. Never raced again. Same practice dispensed anabolic steroids for greyhounds. Talk about cheating and corruption on many levels!

Lisa Marie McKay
June 25, 2021

Well said, ma'am. The competition should ALWAYS be about the animals- their health, their safety, their happiness. Anything else is abusive.

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