For the second time in three years, the winner of the Kentucky Derby could be disqualified after the race, with the runner-up being declared the victor.
But a reversal of this year’s result might not have any effect on betting payouts, a possibility that has at least one prominent gambler considering legal action.
Medina Spirit, under the guidance of renowned trainer Bob Baffert, held off Mandaloun to win the Kentucky Derby on May 1. However, Baffert on Sunday acknowledged his horse tested positive for a steroid, betamethasone, that is legal to use in training but must be under a certain level by race day. Medina Spirit exceeded that threshold, said Baffert, who denied that his operation had administered betamethasone to the horse at all.
Churchill Downs Inc., a wagering and gaming company that owns the track where the Derby is staged, subsequently said Baffert would be immediately suspended from its facility while further testing was conducted.
“To be clear,” the company added, “if the findings are upheld, Medina Spirit’s results in the Kentucky Derby will be invalidated and Mandaloun will be declared the winner.”
That does not mean those who bet on Mandaloun to win would be able to cash their tickets.
Asked Sunday about the possibility Mandaloun bettors might thus profit from their wagers, an official with Churchill Downs pointed to this passage from Kentucky Horse Racing Commission regulations: “Payment of valid pari-mutuel tickets shall be made on the basis of the order of finish as declared ‘official’ by the stewards or judges. A subsequent change in the order of finish or award of purse money that may result from a subsequent ruling by the stewards, judges, or commission shall not affect the pari-mutuel payout.”
Disqualifying Medina Spirit — whose backers can still cash tickets, if they have not done so already — and installing Mandaloun as the Derby winner would qualify as a “subsequent change” that would not affect the pari-mutuel payout.
The most recent disqualification of a Kentucky Derby winner, in 2019, resulted something of a reverse situation.
Maximum Security appeared to win the race but was disqualified for interference before track stewards declared the results official.
That made second-place Country House the winner both on the track and on betting tickets.
Maximum Security’s owner filed an appeal, which gave some of the horse’s bettors hope they could cash their tickets if the interference ruling was overturned. The stewards’ decision was soon upheld, but not before an expert on horse-racing regulations told the Louisville Courier-Journal that the bettors were already out of luck.
“Those tickets will never be good,” Bob Heleringer, author of “Equine Regulatory Law,” told the newspaper at the time. He described the finality of betting results once a race becomes official as “one of the most irrevocable standards in racing.”
To Michael Beychok, though, it’s time for a change, one that might help keep bettors from taking their action away from horse racing and toward myriad other gambling options.
“I’m cheated out of the money that I bet, and I want to get what I’m owed, what I should have gotten if the game was on the up-and-up,” Beychok said Sunday in a phone interview.
Beychok is a Louisiana-based political consultant who in 2012 won an Eclipse Award worth $1 million as the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association Handicapper of the Year. He said the pari-mutuel rules would cost him about $50,000 in Kentucky Derby winnings should Mandaloun be declared the winner, and he said he was soliciting feedback from numerous other bettors. Beychok said he had spoken with a couple of lawyers and was considering a class-action lawsuit against Churchill Downs.
Noting that Churchill Downs also runs casinos, Beychok said he would have much more confidence in one of the company’s blackjack games than its signature event.
“I want the same assurances when I bet my money with them at the racetrack — that the game is going to be on the up-and-up,” he said. “And it’s not. It’s absolutely not on the up-and-up all the time, and that’s what’s frustrating.”
Ray Paulick, who runs a website that covers the sport, agreed “it would be against the rules” to pay out wagers on Mandaloun should Medina Spirit be disqualified, but he also noted things have changed dramatically from the era when bets on horse races were mostly made at the tracks.
“Nowadays, especially with the pandemic, probably 90% of bets that are made on races are done digitally,” he said, “through an account that has your information — who you are, where you live, all that stuff.”
Whereas a track issuing paper tickets previously had no means of knowing who had wagered on which horses, and for how much, now a corporation such as Churchill Downs can access that information for bets placed online. It theoretically could shift those electronic payouts from Medina Spirit bettors to Mandaloun backers, although not without regulatory change, and almost certainly not without a huge amount of pushback from those who won money.
There is, however, a degree of legal precedent for the kind of response Beychok and others are considering. Paulick pointed to a $20,000 settlement last year after a harness-racing bettor filed suit, alleging he was cheated out of more than $30,000 in 2016 when a winning horse at a New Jersey track was revealed to have tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance.
That bettor, who made his wagers online while based in Illinois, was assisted in his lawsuit by the animal-advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. A senior vice president of PETA, Kathy Guillermo, said Sunday via email that lawyers for the organization are “taking an extremely close look at many possibilities” involving this year’s Kentucky Derby, including “whether bettors have again been swindled.”
Of the decorated trainer embroiled in the situation, Guillermo wrote, “The time has long passed for regulators to stop protecting Bob Baffert with minimal fines and finally kick him out of racing.”
Arguably the foremost American horse trainer of the millennium, Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby a record seven times, and he has also won the other two Triple Crown races a combined 10 times. However, Baffert has also had several horses fail drug tests over the past year, and his late-blooming 2018 Triple Crown winner, Justify, reportedly did the same shortly before embarking on that campaign.
“Thirty verified drug violations over his career,” Guillermo said of Baffert, “with five in just the last six months, point to a pattern of cheating that should never have been tolerated these long years. He will undoubtedly come up with yet another implausible excuse, but this time, the regulators need to get a backbone, protect the horses from systematic abuse, and ban him permanently from racing.”
Baffert said Sunday that he was “just totally shocked” by Medina Spirit’s positive test for betamethasone.
“We didn’t have anything to do with this,” he said. “I don’t know how it got in his system, if it was in his system, or a mistake. But we’re going to get to the bottom of it.”
Baffert added that he was “worried about our sport,” which he said had “taken a lot of hits.”
To Beychok, the horse-racing industry could regain a lot of public confidence by moving to national standards rather than a state-by-state patchwork of regulations and by bringing in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to independently oversee all of its drug testing.
He wasn’t sure how successful a potential lawsuit might be, but he described it as “the right thing to do to bring attention to the fact that there’s an injustice here.” Horse racing officials need to run a “cleaner” operation, the political consultant said, or “no one’s going to bet on it anymore.”
“I’m not a lawyer,” Beychok said. “I am an expert on public relations, however, and I would think that this is beyond a legal argument, winning or losing.
“This is about presenting to the public a face that you are offering a fair and equal game of chance.”