A Dreamlike Summer Obscures Trouble in the ‘Sport of Kings’
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — The man who was once the most famous sportswriter in America is said to have uttered the most famous words about this …
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — The man who was once the most famous sportswriter in America is said to have uttered the most famous words about this town and racetrack. How do you get to Saratoga, Red Smith was asked?
“From New York City you drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue, and go back 100 years,” he purportedly said.
This description of what is thought to be America’s oldest sports venue still holds up. Morning sunshine breaks through a canopy of pine trees on the jogging paths of Clare Court, bathing the horses and riders in sepia.
Horses clip-clop languidly across Union Avenue to reach the racetrack, stopping traffic and stealing the hearts of horse enthusiasts who admire their grace and power. Church is in session each morning at the Oklahoma training track, where the faithful work their binoculars like rosary beads as a drumbeat of hooves drifts to the heavens.
It is easy to come here each summer and believe all is right in the “Sport of Kings.”
Until reality intrudes.
The 152nd running of the Travers Stakes is on Saturday. Its list of past winners is a march through the sport’s better days: Man o’ War, Whirlaway, Buckpasser and Easy Goer.
Unfortunately, not many are talking about the horses expected to line up in the race, known as the Midsummer Derby. The fact that we still do not have an official winner of the Kentucky Derby is what has the horsy set buzzing.
Medina Spirit crossed the finish line first, only to flunk a postrace test for a prohibited corticosteroid. The colt has not raced since finishing third two weeks later in the Preakness Stakes.
Instead, the result of what is known as America’s greatest horse race has been contested in state and federal courts. Lawyers for the colt’s trainer, Bob Baffert, have asked for and been granted additional testing of the Derby sample. They hope to bolster their argument that the betamethasone found in Medina Spirit came from an ointment to treat a skin condition, not an injection to improve the colt’s performance.
In New York, a federal judge overturned a suspension issued by the New York Racing Association that would have barred Baffert’s horses from competing here.
Essential Quality, trained by Brad Cox, is favored to win the $1.25 million Travers. The 2-year-old champion’s only loss was a fourth-place finish in the Derby. He rebounded to win the Belmont Stakes and the Jim Dandy Stakes here last month.
But questions about Baffert continue to shroud the sport.
At least three horses he trains will run in rich stake races over the weekend — including Gamine in the $500,000 Ballerina Stakes on Travers day. Perhaps the fastest filly in the world, her lone defeat in nine starts was a third-place finish in last year’s Kentucky Oaks.
Alas, Gamine was disqualified after testing positive for the same drug that has put Medina Spirit’s Derby victory in limbo. The two violations were among five Baffert racked up in 13 months.
Will Baffert be at Saratoga to see Gamine run?
When the Baffert-trained 2015 Triple Crown champion American Pharoah was inducted into the Hall of Fame here earlier this month, Baffert was a no-show. He was spared the sight of a protester dressed like him in a white wig and trademark sunglasses, hoisting a giant syringe.
The charm of Saratoga Springs aside, August has not been kind to horse racing.
There were the cascading guilty pleas from the dozens of trainers, veterinarians and drug distributors indicted last year with doping racehorses and cheating the public.
The most recent are the most damning.
The trainer Jorge Navarro — caught on videotape calling himself the Juice Man — pleaded guilty to giving his horses multiple performance-enhancing substances and admitted that he distributed them to others. Navarro was perennially atop the Monmouth Park trainer standings and said he had doped numerous horses, including Sharp Azteca, a Grade I winner who now is a stallion.
Kristian Rhein, a veterinarian, admitted to doping horses including the Jason Servis-trained Maximum Security, who won four Grade I races and was disqualified from first place for interference in the 2019 Kentucky Derby.
Servis has pleaded not guilty and is contesting the charges.
“Kristian Rhein and Jorge Navarro represent the supply side and the customer side of the market in performance-enhancing substances that have corrupted much of the horse-racing industry,” United States Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement. “Navarro, a licensed trainer and the purported ‘winner’ of major races across the world, was in fact a reckless fraudster whose veneer of success relied on the systematic abuse of the animals under his control.”
These are problems that no amount of sepia can wash away.
The arrival of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which becomes law on July 1, 2022, is cause for hope. The law calls for a board overseen by the Federal Trade Commission to write rules and penalties that will be enforced by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. USADA regulates Olympic athletes in the United States and revealed Lance Armstrong’s cheating, issuing him a lifetime suspension in 2012.
And that is a very modern solution.
This village of pastel Victorian houses could continue to swell with horseplayers for another century or two. For that to be fulfilled, however, the lords of horse racing must run dopers, cheaters and animal abusers out of the sport.
“A pleasant pastime which in a few favored places like Saratoga retains some traces of its early character as sport,” Smith wrote some 67 years ago. “You might feel that if Saratoga were to pass, something oddly valuable would die with it.”
If the sport were to lose what is left of its credibility, the world might no longer have Clare Court.