Not Just The Derby: Prairie Meadows Drug Tests Its Horses, Too

Written By Russ Mitchell on May 11, 2021

Stopwatches time the fastest horses at Prairie Meadows but consult a calendar to anticipate the payouts for trainers and owners at Iowa’s only horse racetrack.

As we’re learning from the Kentucky Derby controversy, the horse that finishes at the front of the pack may or may not be declared the winner.

A cloudy Triple Crown bid

Medina Spirit gave trainer Bob Baffert his seventh Kentucky Derby win — for the moment — on May 1.

Baffert now admits the Derby’s fastest horse had Otomax in his system. The anti-fungal ointment contains the steroid Betamethasone.

Pending pre-race drug testing, Medina Spirit is on his way to Baltimore for Saturday’s Preakness Stakes but Baffert won’t join the horse at Pimlico Race Course.

The controversial trainer likely has ties to races at Prairie Meadows, according to Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission (IRGC) Administrator Brian Ohorilko:

“I don’t remember a time where Baffert has actually had a stable of horses here at Prairie Meadows. Certainly during the festival racing at Prairie Meadows, there’s a number of graded stakes races. They have higher purses that draw horses from all over the country. I’m confident Baffert has brought horses here to Prairie Meadows to participate in those races from time to time over the years.”

Positive tests happen at Prairie Meadows

Prairie Meadows kicked off its 32nd season on April 30 and, odds are, some blood and urine samples will be called into question during the season.

In 2020, veterinarians drew 1,118 samples from thoroughbreds in Altoona. The testing revealed 11 positive results for excessive levels of a prohibited substance.

Prairie Meadows races quarter horses as well. Of 526 samples drawn, 10 samples exceeded legal limits, according to Ohorilko.

“We do get positive tests. It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen.”

The most common violations take place when a trainer gives the horse a therapeutic drug then allows it to race too soon after the treatment.

Ohorilko said penalties vary based on the type of medication detected in the horse:

“If we’re looking at Class A or Class B drug, those are the most egregious type of drug in terms of how they impact an animal’s racing performance.”

Class C and D drugs might be administered with therapeutic intentions, but regulators don’t allow animals to race on those types of medications. Prairie Meadows stewards issue the fines and withhold winnings.

Ohorilko said most suspensions last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

“It’s been been a few years where we’ve had anything that was very egregious, that would call for a suspension of over a year. It doesn’t happen very often.”

Blood samples and surveillance cameras

Pre-race and post-race testing go hand-in-hand at Prairie Meadows.

State veterinarians inspect the horses before a race. After the race, regulators automatically collect blood and urine samples from first- and second-place horses.

Ohorilko said:

“If we see a horse perform much better than they have historically performed — or much worse — then the stewards or vets could call for random samplings of additional horses in that race. After the race, the horses will go immediately to the test barn. They are under camera coverage or under escort.”

The process prevents trainers from slipping their horse a masking agent or swapping out a “dirty” horse for a “clean” lookalike.

Horses then go through a cool-down process before regulators collect the samples.

Iowa State University used to handle testing through its college of agriculture. Now, the samples go to an industrial lab in Colorado. The results come back between three to seven days.

“If the tests are not clean, then the trainer will be notified. The trainer has a right to send in a split sample to any lab that has been agreed upon by the state and the HBPA (Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association).”

Blind lab process prevents ‘cancel culture’ in Iowa

Baffert’s anti-fungal ointment defense surfaced Tuesday, but the trainer previously thought the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission singled out Medina Spirit.

After Churchill Downs suspended Baffert for failure to comply with medication protocols, he told Fox News:

“We live in a different world now. This America is different and this — it was like a cancel culture kind of thing. So they’re reviewing it.”

As Ohorilko said, first- and second-place finishers know their horses will automatically be tested at Prairie Meadows.

Ohorilko said testing in Colorado is a blind process, so technicians wouldn’t be able to single out a trainer or a horse:

“The horse’s name, all the owners, the trainers, those connections — none of that is known by the lab. A barcode is affixed to the sample. Then, when it’s reported out to the commission, it is reported out by that particular number. It would be up to the stewards to decipher if there is a positive test. They would then go back and match those barcodes and try to determine which trainer would have had the positive.”


Photo by Danny Lawhon / Catena Media
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Russ Mitchell

Russ Mitchell has been covering news and sports in northwest Iowa since 1997, including 11 years as managing editor for one of the most acclaimed community newspapers in the state. He looks forward to keeping readers up to date on the growing sportsbook industry in Iowa.

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