What killed Medina Spirit? Inside the winner horse’s mysterious death

She’d introduced him into the entire world as a child — and now can not consider he is absent.

Gail Rice, the breeder who aided Medina Spirit’s mother as she struggled to give beginning to him three years ago, had trouble accepting that the Kentucky Derby winner collapsed and died of an obvious heart attack Monday though training at the Santa Anita observe in California.

“It was like no, you are kidding me…this can not be,” claimed Rice. “It does not truly sink in suitable away. You feel this simply cannot be real. And then you get started crying.”

But as upset as she is over the champion’s sudden passing, Rice is outraged that critics are now employing his dying as evidence that the sport is inhumane and should be cancelled.

“I really do not see how people can say that we’re abusing them. If they observed how considerably care these horses get they wouldn’t be saying that,” she mentioned. “But there are nonetheless people declaring the horse was doped up and that’s why he experienced a coronary heart attack. That didn’t happen. His heart burst.”

So what did cause the demise of Medina Spirit?

Medina Spirit surveys the crowds at Churchill Downs one week before his Kentucky Derby victory.
Medina Spirit surveys the crowds at Churchill Downs one 7 days right before his Kentucky Derby victory.
Pat McDonogh/Courier Journal

Pursuing his improbable gain in Kentucky on May possibly 1, the underdog colt tested positive for betamethasone, a ache-killing, anti-inflammatory steroid. Churchill Downs officers stripped Medina Spirit of the victory and banned his trainer, Bob Baffert, from moving into his horses on any of their racetracks for two many years.

“Mr. Baffert’s report of testing failures threatens general public self-assurance in Thoroughbred racing and the name of the Kentucky Derby,” Churchill Downs Included reported in a assertion.

Medina Spirit breeder Gail Rice walks a yearling at the Magic Oaks Farm in Citra, Fla.
Medina Spirit breeder Gail Rice walks a yearling at the Magic Oaks Farm in Citra, Fla.
Doug Engle/United states of america Nowadays Network

“Failure to comply with the guidelines and treatment protocols jeopardizes the security of the horses and jockeys, the integrity of our sport and the name of the Kentucky Derby and all who participate,” the statement additional. “Churchill Downs will not tolerate it.”

Baffert also obtained booted by the New York Racing Association, which will assessment his suspension in January.

The Hall of Fame trainer has a historical past of wins and failed drug exams in his secure and was found to have had 74 horses die underneath his care in his dwelling point out of California considering that 2000, in accordance to a Washington Publish report. Baffert claimed Medina Spirit never ever got betamethasone, a drug authorized as an injection treatment that just cannot be present in the blood on race day due to the fact it potentially boosts functionality.

He afterwards mentioned his vet applied Otomax, a fungus-battling pores and skin ointment with the topical selection of betamethasone, to address a rash on the horse’s hindquarters, implementing it each day for a month right up until the day just before the Derby. The issue continues to be beneath investigation by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

Baffert has discounted the quantity of the betamethasone identified in Medina Spirit — 21 picograms — as “very moment,” boasting that amount of the drug “wouldn’t affect the [performance of the] horse.” (A picogram is just one-trillionth of a gram.)

Medina Spirit trainer Bob Baffert lifts the winning trophy at the Kentucky Derby. Afterwards, the horse failed a drug test and was stripped of the title.
Medina Spirit trainer Bob Baffert lifts the successful trophy at the Kentucky Derby. Later on, the horse failed a drug exam and was stripped of the title.
Getty Photographs

But is it attainable the drug experienced a very long-term result on the horse’s wellness?

“If they employed it each individual day for six months, it could have a deleterious impact,” stated Dr. Rick Arthur, a leading expert on horse health and fitness, who mentioned that Baffert’s team experienced been providing the corticosteroid ointment to Medina Spirit for a month prior to the Kentucky Derby.

“Long-time period corticosteroid can impede the adrenal glands,” stated Arthur, leading to decreased cortisol creation by the human body and probable aspect results these kinds of as pounds decline, exhaustion and muscle mass weak point.

“But I have never acknowledged a challenge with betamethasone since it is usually employed for a several times and it would be unusual to use it for additional than two weeks.”

Even if overused, he claimed the drug wouldn’t turn into daily life-threatening for the reason that it does not make up like other sorts of steroids.

Medina Spirit and jockey John Velazquez win the Grade I, $300,000 Awesome Again on Oct. 2, 2021 at Santa Anita racetrack, which has been cited for multiple horse fatalities.
Medina Spirit and jockey John Velazquez get the Quality I, $300,000 Magnificent Once again on Oct. 2, 2021 at Santa Anita racetrack.

“Once it’s absorbed it has a quite limited 50 percent-daily life in the body,” he mentioned.

He extra that it’s not likely betamethasone contributed to Medina Spirit’s heart failure.

“They’re totally unrelated,” he mentioned. “Having examined this dilemma thoroughly, I will tell you there are no prior clinical signs with these presumptive cardiac failures.”

Medina Spirit’s human body is now headed to a lab in San Bernardino operate by the University of California at Davis, in which a sequence of forensic assessments will try to ascertain what killed him, in accordance to the facility’s director, Dr. Ashley Hill.

The horse will undergo a necropsy, in the course of which the physique will be opened up and “we’ll glance for apparent causes — fractured limbs or a massive quantity of blood, a fractured neck,” explained Hill. “We consider samples of all the organs and seem at them under the microscope. We exam for viruses, evidence of harmful substances. It’s up to the personal pathologist to examine regardless of what avenues that they sense are the most promising. The purpose is to decide the bring about of loss of life but also to use the info to reduce potential incidents.”

The exterior of Santa Anita Park is seen in Arcadia, Calif.
Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., has been cited for multiple horse fatalities.

Sadly, the unexplained loss of life of a horse is “not atypical,” even amongst youthful thoroughbreds, explained Hill, whose outfit — the California Animal Overall health and Food Safety Laboratory — pioneered the science of equine postmortems, and performs hundreds of necropsies each individual calendar year.

“About fifty percent the time we’re capable to decide the result in,” she mentioned. “About 20 percent of the time we can speculate as to the resource, and the rest of the time, even with our very best attempts, we can’t make a resolve.”

Meanwhile, Santa Anita is infamous for its bad basic safety document. A full of 23 horses died at the monitor in 2019, 22 of which included fatal injuries, with one heart assault, according to a state-run investigation led by Dr. Arthur.

Medina Spirit, out in front at the Kentucky Derby, died on Monday aged three from reported heart failure.
Medina Spirit, out in entrance at the Kentucky Derby, died on Monday aged three from claimed coronary heart failure.
Getty Pictures

That report observed that some of the horses confirmed indications of extreme exercise, and the monitor was dinged for flouting basic safety principles.

“The main problem with Santa Anita was that the keep track of experienced an inordinate amount of rain and wasn’t managed thoroughly,” Arthur reported. “There was not always a culture of safety.” 

But, he additional: “There’s been key enhancements: more veterinary oversight and a much more restrictive treatment protocol. The results have been extraordinary.”

Fatalities at Santa Anita dropped to 10 final calendar year.

Medina Spirit being born
Medina Spirit as a new child foal with trainer Gail Rice’s daughter Emily.
Gail Rice

Medina Spirit was not the first winner horse to die in his primary.

“It took place to Swale,” famous Arthur, referring to the three-yr-old colt who experienced won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes in 1984 but died suddenly eight days after the latter race when obtaining a sponge bathtub pursuing a gentle exercise routine. Coronary heart failure was the induce.

Patrick Battuello, an advocate for the abolition of racing, argues that a few-year-olds are far too younger to be thrust into racing.

“The typical horse does not get to complete musculoskeletal maturity — bones not completed rising, plates not done fusing — till around six,” he writes on his Horseracing Wrongs web site.

“And the higher up, the slower the procedure, so that the bones in the backbone and neck, of all spots, are the very last to finish. The regular racehorse is thrust into intensive training at 18 months, and raced at two. A two-year-old horse is the tough equal of a 6-12 months-previous child. This early, incessant grinding leaves several with chronic situations like arthritis.”

The life expectancy of a thoroughbred is somewhere among 25 and 28, in accordance to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.

Despite Baffert’s history of infractions, Rice thinks the coach is having a uncooked deal.

“The horse did not get an injection,” she explained. “He experienced ointment on his hip. I experience so sorry for Bob Baffert. He just doesn’t have earned it. They want to toss stones prior to anything at all is established.”

Bob Baffert, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, was banned from racing at Churchill Downs after Medina Spirit failed his drug test.
Trainer Bob Baffert was banned from racing at Churchill Downs for two several years right after Medina Spirit failed a drug exam in May.

Soon after Medina Spirit died on Monday, Baffert launched a statement, declaring that: “My whole barn is devastated by this news. Medina Spirit was a great winner, a member of our family who was liked by all, and we are deeply mourning his decline. I will always cherish the very pleased and personal recollections of Medina Spirit and his remarkable spirit.”

Rice remembers the horse’s spirit better than most. She mentioned she was with Medina Spirit in the winner’s circle on Derby working day, proper soon after he’d completed initially, and planted a kiss on the horse’s head.

“I advised him, ‘You’re this kind of a excellent boy.’”

Medina Spirit was amongst her favorites in her 40-calendar year career as a breeder, she included.

Even so, she reported, “I can’t be sad” about his tragic demise.

“Look at what he did. I thank God for placing him in my daily life so I could have these experiences.”