Media evaluation of polls, handicapping how an election might turn out or how something might help or hurt a candidate is often called “the horse race” of politics. It’s less about issues and more about odds and outcomes.
This week, though, it was politics that invaded horse racing, because nothing, it seems, is exempt from a political bent these days.
Bob Baffert, the California thoroughbred trainer who is one of the most successful in the sport, was stripped of his Kentucky Derby win and indefinitely banned from storied venue Churchill Downs after his horse, Medina Spirit, tested positive for elevated levels of an anti-inflammatory steroid.
So Baffert went on Fox News earlier this week to claim he was the victim of “cancel culture,” a right-wing rubber-stamp response to just about anything at this particular point in time. He seemed to suggest his horse might not be allowed to participate in remaining races in the Triple Crown because, “With all the noise going out, we live in a different world now. This America is different, and it was like a cancel culture kind of thing.”
No, Bob, it wasn’t. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
I grew up in Kentucky. I always watch the Derby — sometimes at a party, sometimes at home with my family. It’s just something most of us with ties to Kentucky do. I have no moral stance for or against horse racing, nor any leanings toward the sport’s supposed stars or rogues. After all, I only watch it once a year.
The Kentucky Derby is more spectacle and a free pass to binge drink these days. NBC and its affiliate sports network started TV coverage at noon for a two-minute race that didn’t see the horses get out of the gate until nearly 7 p.m. Yes, there are other races throughout the day, but, for a casual audience, those don’t matter. It’s more about the hats, the bourbon and the celebrities — even this year, with a reduced crowd because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There’s also the money. Millions are wagered on the race. This year, a man held up $100,000 in cash, announced the horse he was placing it on, and handed it over to the betting window. It was only the latest addition to an estimated $2.4 million he had placed on that horse.
The betting is only one side of the money that goes into it, though. Elite horse racing is a rich sport. Baffert’s net worth is estimated at $30 million. He’s trained horses owned by Saudi princes. Queen Elizabeth II used to own horses in Lexington, Kentucky. There’s a reason it’s called the “sport of kings.”
I can’t really relate to any of that. I was once in the same room with the queen when she paid a visit to Lexington’s famed Keenland track in the 1980s, but that’s the only thing we have in common. If I had $100,000 in my hand, and it wasn’t obtained as part of a bank heist, I’d pay off my mortgage or start a college fund. I doubt I’ll ever see that kind of money in one place at one time, let alone hoist it aloft in a crowd, and then announce I’m taking a fairly high risk of losing it, but it’s OK if I do, because there’s plenty more where that came from. That doesn’t make it wrong. It’s just way outside my league.
Speaking of which, that guy — Jim McIngvale, a Texas furniture magnate worth an estimated $300 million — did, indeed, lose his bet. Does that mean he was railroaded by cancel culture, too? Because it seems like that phrase is now being applied to any result someone doesn’t like.
Baffert isn’t being canceled. For starters, he’s complaining about it on the highest-rated cable news network in the country. How is that being unfairly silenced or shunned?
Also, before clutching pearls about the casting of stones at Saint Bob, it’s important to know he had three horses fail drug tests in four races last year. He’s had nearly 30 doping violations in his career. But he’s managed to avoid strict sanctions, mainly because of technicalities.
As Sports Illustrated writer Pat Forde, who lives in Louisville and has forgotten more about the Derby than I’ll ever know, put it:
“Why is there always a new problem for the most successful trainer in the sport? At this point, it’s up to Baffert to supply a compelling answer to that question, not the rest of us. It’s his job to convince the world that he’s not what he seems to be. A man who has been a lightning-rod figure in racing for a quarter century has now seen his leaking credibility reach the saturation point.”
Baffert has sworn to conduct his own investigation, which I’m sure will exonerate him through some bizarre explanation. I don’t really care. All I really want is for those in sports and politics — or anything, really — to stop blaming “cancel culture” for their problems. Especially when they’ve got $30 million in the bank and are paid to train horses that receive better treatment and live in better conditions than some human beings.
At the end of the day, some of us just want to watch the horse race and move on with our lives.