News that Justify failed a drug test after the Santa Anita Handicap — a disqualification which could have left him ineligible to run in the Kentucky Derby had he not placed in another qualifying race — broke on Thursday in the New York Times.
The colt tested positive for scopolamine, a banned substance that some vets say can enhance function as a bronchodilator which could clear a horse’s airway and optimize its heart rate, making the horse more efficient. It’s not exactly a performance enhancing super power — it also has sedative effects, which would not be ideal for a racehorse — but it is a banned substance nonetheless. And the amount that was found in his system, 300 nanograms per milliliter, was significantly more than residue limit of 60 nanograms per milliliter put in place by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities to account of inadvertant contamination in feed (Jimson weed, which can be found in straw and hay in California, is a source of scopolamine).
Let’s be clear. Justify, along with all the other contenders in the Triple Crown races, passed all the drug tests the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. The issue is that according to the rules, he should have been disqualifed from the Santa Anita Handicap, which would left him without needed qualifying points for the Derby. And, more significantly, the California Horse Racing Board covered up the failed drug test by voting to dismiss the case during a closed-door executive session in August 2018, after the horse had won the Triple Crown.
Like with so many things, it’s the cover up, not the crime that is the most interesting aspect of this situation. A failed drug test usually means disqualification and forfeiture of winnings. In the case of the Santa Anita Handicap, neither occured.
Instead, when trainer Bob Baffert was notified of the failed drug test on April 26th, he requested, as is his right, that the sample be split and confirmed by an independent lab. On May 5th, Justify won the Kentucky Derby. On May 8th, the second lab verfied the initial results. The a memo from Rick Baedeker, CHRB, exeutive direcor, says that the CHRB will issue a complaint and schedule a hearing. Neither of these happens. On May 19th, Justify wins the Preakness Stakes. On June 9th, Justify wins the Belmont stakes.
It isn’t until August 23rd that the CHRB addressed Justify’s failed drug test in a private executive session, which rarely happens. The board votes unanimously to not take the case forward and to treat as contamination, not intentional intervention.
A few months after dropping the case, the board lowered the penalty for a positive scopolamine test from disqualification to a fine and a suspension.
Hmmm. So where does that leave horse racing?
The Triple Crown winner’s reputation is now on the line. Should those titles be stripped, like Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France titles?
Should horse racing be regulated by a national organization (as it is in other countries) rather than by each state. People have pointed out that Bob Baffert trains horses owned by members of the CHRB, which smacks of conflict of interest. Would another trainer have gotten off so lightly?
What about the other horse owners? And the people who bet on the races? The owners of Bolt D’Oro, who ran second in the Santa Anita Handicap, are now threatening a lawsuit. For one thing, Justify won $600K for coming in first; Bold D’Oro brought home $200K. But the win (or loss) also impacts each colt’s stud fees and their ability to move onto races like the Derby, where participation must be earned.
In a year where horse racing has already suffered a black eye from the deaths at Santa Anita, and where the Kentucky Derby winner was disqualified for interference, this cover up may give horse racing a knock out punch.
What do you think?
One thought on “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover up”
Boy, this is a tough one. I’ve never cared for Baffert, thinking him more of a grandstander, attention hog, but in the last few years, he has brought in some big, big winning horses. Should the horse be stripped of his record? Be referred to the Used To Be the Triple Crown winner? The horse doesn’t give a damn, all he wants is good hay, fresh water and a place to run. But Baffert? It wouldn’t hurt my feelings to see him taken down a few pegs. I saw how he treated Nick Zito when Bafffert realized a TV camera was on him.
Justify passed the drug tests for the T. Crown. He should be allowed to keep that title, as he DID win the three races, convincingly so. The failed drug test suspension is a technicality.
Would stripping him…which, is probably the ethical thing to do, do much harm racing?
Well, I sort of doubt it. There are two types of people here in the US…those us horse crazy people see this as a Big Thing. The other type are people who could only name a single race horse even if held at gunpoint, and that’s Secretariat. (Just like most people can only name two types of aircraft: Cessna and Boeing 747). So the ? is…what’s important. Did Baffert pull strings? Did the CHRB drop the ball, did they take some $ under the table, so they have an explanation for the lateness of the results? did they dance around the problem realizing it might make a big stink, was the lab late in their decision? that’s assuming they knew in advance that Justify would win the T. Crown. So… While I don’t trust Baffert to not do something like that…he’s pretty much a pompous asshole..still, the fact that he asked for the sample to split and retested does mean something. and let’s face it, while I don’t like him, he is too smart a trainer to risk EVERYTHING on a drug test. The small fry do it, but Baffert? I don’t think he’s that stupid.
I smell a very big dead rat in that the CHRB held a private meeting…but how many times have you, or me, or anyone I know, actually attended such a meeting? Still. The whole thing does smell of cover up, maybe a little payola, or as you note, a big, big conflict of interest.
I say…strip the horse and let the chips fall where they may. It might not kill horse racing here in the US, in fact, it might clean it’s reputation up. Look at the Tour de France, after the Armstrong thing. The fact that they stripped that cheater of his titles only gave me more respect for the board that did it…even thought it took a while.
It shouldn’t affect Justify’s breeding shed time, either. Even after…was it Majestic Prince? who was disqualified for Bute, he was still used at stud. After all, he..and Justify, are just horses,& breeders use drugs all the time on their horses. Was it contamination? Maybe. Maybe. I have no idea why anyone wuld purposefully feed jimsonweed to a horse………unless there’s a whole different angle to this, that of sabotage, that no one seems to be looking at.
Or maybe my tinhat has slipped and I’m smelling conspiracies where there are none.
As for racing to be managed under a national board, as is done in other countries? Anytime you get a bunch of people in charge for something, eventually, no matter how ethical the first batch of board members are, by the third generation, they’re all people with Agendas and Contacts. A good example is the IOC..International Olympics Committee, who these days, don’t give a shit about the athletes…it’s nationalism, it’s advertising, it’s marketing, it’s trademarking, it’s that lucrative bottom line that floats their boat.
How do I know? I live in Olympia, WA. Several years ago, I can’t remember quite when, this bunch of foreigners from the IOC contacted every business in the Puget Sound Region, (Seattle, Olympia, etc) by snail mail, with a very real legal document, telling the owner/business man/ etc that they were breaking the law. The EOC told told them they could not use the words “Olympic” “Olympics” “The Olympic fill in the blank.” for any purpose whatsoever. They had trademarked the above named words and anyone who had any business or whatever using those words would be sued. They insisted that Olympia must change it’s name, that the Olympics National Park name must be changed, the Olympic Mountains must be named something else, that we were STEALING money from them by intentionally and illegally using a trademarked name. Let’s never mind that the Olympic mountains have been there for, oh, 30 million years? And the city of Olympia was established back in the early 1800s. Even so, aunt joan’s Olympic Day Spa and your cousin’s Olympic Peninsula Dog Grooming service were threatened with lawsuits for “””Trademark violations.” I believe the trademark was officially done so no more than 20 years ago.
We as a entire community told the EOC to eff off.