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?