Incredibly, a multi-billion dollar sport/industry is tarnished by 21 picograms of a legal medication. To borrow the words of tennis icon John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious!”

When news of Medina Spirit’s drug positive in the 2021 Kentucky Derby broke, the national media understandably reported the story as a sensational scandal.  Horse racing’s most prominent trainer had won the race with a colt running on illicit medication.

Predictably, PETA immediately put out accusatory releases and major organizations in horse racing abandoned due process in their rush to condemn and punish Robert Baffert, Medina Spirit’s trainer.  He was banned by both Churchill Downs Inc. and the New York Racing Association (the NYRA ruling stayed by a New York judge).  And, at this writing, the Breeders’ Cup board is considering whether it will allow Baffert to participate in the upcoming Breeders’ Cup World Championships. 

The sordid episode is far from over. After legal proceedings play out, very public recriminations will resurface regardless of whether Medina Spirit is or is not disqualified. It is a “no win” outcome for horse racing’s image.

In my view, the sport and industry of horse racing has needlessly brought a litany of negative attention onto itself.  After reading a review in the New York Post of a new book by Josiah Hesse titled Runner’s High, I am even more convinced of that. The review is by Gavin Newsham and is titled “Why more athletes are depending on cannabis.”

According to Hesse, professional athletes who spoke to him on the record estimate that 85% of NBA players, 90% of NFL players, and 50% of NHL players use cannabis to manage pain or stress.  Consider the following three paragraphs from the New York Post article within the context of the imbroglio over an inconsequential 21 picograms of the anti-inflammatory drug betamethasone in Medina Spirit’s system on Kentucky Derby Day.

“In May 2013, WADA [World Anti-Doping Authority] raised the threshold for cannabis in an athlete’s system tenfold, from 15 nanograms to 150 nanograms, allowing athletes to partake during training, safe in the knowledge they can easily get down to the required level once competition starts. In 2018, they also removed CBD from their list of prohibited substances — in or out of competition. 

The NFL also recently raised the acceptable limit of THC in a player’s system from 35 nanograms to 150 and will no longer suspend players for a positive cannabis test. In June, they announced a new commission, alongside the league’s players union, with an award of up to $1 million in grants for researchers to look into the therapeutic potential of marijuana, CBD and other alternatives to opioids for treating pain. 

In 2019, Major League Baseball removed cannabis from its list of prohibited substances following pressure from their players union (although the league still bans players from being high during a game or being sponsored by a cannabis company). And, in 2020, the NBA suspended random testing of players for cannabis.”

Had the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission established acceptable and reasonable limits for humane medications on raceday—similar to WADA and the major professional sports leagues for cannabis—the highly detrimental PR damage emanating from America’s premier horse race would have been avoided.

While the entire horse racing enterprise isn’t to blame for antiquated drug rules and blundering by a few, the whole industry is paying a steep price in the market of public opinion.

Click here to access the NY Post book review of Runner’s High.

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