Sha’Carri Richardson made headlines when the U. S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) suspended her for one month after she tested positive for a non-performance-enhancing chemical in marijuana called THC subsequent to her easy win in the women’s 100m in the U. S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.  This suspension disqualifies her from competing in the same event at the Toyko Olympics, where she would have been favored to win a Gold Medal.

The USADA is the very same organization that will regulate medication in U. S. horse racing beginning in July 2022 under the provisions of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2020.  Its CEO, Travis Tygart, commented on the Richardson suspension: “The rules are clear, but this is heartbreaking on many levels…”  Richardson said she smoked marijuana to ease the pain of her biological mother dying.

The Richardson suspension drew strong reactions from people ranging from the president of the United States, members of congress, and sportscasters to everyday fans.  President Joe Biden said: “Rules are rules.  Everybody knows what the rules are going in.”  However, “I was really proud of the way she responded.” 

Richardson’s classy mea culpa read: “I just want to take responsibility for my actions.  I know what I did, I know what I’m supposed to do…and I still made that decision [to smoke marijuana].  I’m not making an excuse or looking for any empathy in my case.” No playing victim for this athlete.

Others took exception with Biden, labeling the suspension “unscientific” or a supposed violation of civil liberties, or an action based on alleged racist anti-cannabis laws.

Now contrast the outpouring of support for Richardson—and her brief one-month suspension—with what happened to Bob Baffert after 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for 21 picograms of the anti-inflammatory drug betamethasone.  Baffert was suspended for two years by Churchill Downs, banned for an indeterminate amount of time by the New York Racing Association, and is being sued by one or more groups of bettors.  He and horse racing were pilloried in the media and by PETA.  To my knowledge, Travis Tygart offered no sentiments that the Medina Spirit incident was “heartbreaking on many levels.”

Baffert had his defenders, most notably Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, but the tide of opinion and punitive moves by Churchill Downs and NYRA were overwhelmingly negative.  Moreover, the Kentucky State Racing Commission is likely to disqualify Medina Spirit, which is the correct decision per the written rules.

One potent public-relations difference between the treatment of Richardson and Baffert is that Richardson graciously admitted that she violated the rules, whereas Baffert and his connections are making excuses and litigating.  In addition, an athlete smoking marijuana to ease the grief from losing her biological mother receives more sympathy than a Hall of Fame horse trainer (with wealthy owners) who is widely portrayed (perhaps correctly) as flouting drug rules to win a race (and shaft bettors in the process), though intent is difficult to prove.

Having duly noted these mostly subjective and emotive nuances, it is objectively evident that the punishments already dealt to Baffert and those likely to follow are much harsher than what are warranted, using the Richardson case as the benchmark to indicate the appropriate penalties. The USADA will eventually find itself involved in a high-profile Richardson-like situation in horse racing, wherein the violation is not egregious but rules have been broken. The Medina Spirit scandal falls into that category.

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