Hall of fame trainer Bob Baffert and the California racing board disputed Thursday a New York Times report that 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify should have been disqualified after a Kentucky Derby prep race because of a failed drug test.
The New York Times reported Wednesday the chestnut colt had large amounts of a banned substance in his system after the Santa Anita Derby, a race in which Justify needed to finish first or second in order to qualify for the Derby, the first of the three races of US thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown.
Justify won at Santa Anita on April 7, 2018, and became one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby.
The Times reported that had the state’s horse racing officials followed the rules, the failed drug test for scopolamine would have disqualified the 3-year-old horse’s result at the qualification race and the horse would not have been eligible for a Kentucky Derby entry, the paper said in the explosive report Wednesday night.
But instead, the California Horse Racing Board took more than a month to confirm the drug test results, and it opted to drop the case after that, the paper said, citing reviewed documents.
Racing board says it had changed drug rules
Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the racing board, told CNN the most recent time a horse was tested positive for scopolamine was in 2007 and the case lasted 18 months.
“Thirty days is the fastest you will ever see the process go for a split sample return,” he said.
The racing board said it follows the protocol from the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which had reclassified the drug from a Class 3B violation to a Class 4C violation in December 2016.
As a result, the racing board argued the horse would not have been disqualified from the Santa Anita Derby because the drug had been reclassified and Baffert’s team only would have received a fine for the positive drug test.
However, in an interview with CNN, a horse racing official said the thoroughbred still would have been disqualified under a Class 4C violation unless the racing board presented compelling mitigating factors, such as environmental contamination. CNN has asked the racing board for its evidence of environmental contamination.
The Times reported the racing board changed the penalty for scopolamine use in October 2018.
Ed Martin, the president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, told CNN, “Transparency is important for the public to have, if there are mitigating circumstances, we hope that the CHRB will put it out in a timely way.”
Baffert says horse had small amounts of drug from feed
“I unequivocally reject any implication that scopolamine was ever intentionally administered to Justify, or any of my horses,” Baffert said in a statement through his attorney.
He claimed the “trace amounts of the drug” found in test results were “undoubtedly” due to the horse’s feed being contaminated by jimson weed, “a naturally growing substance in areas where hay and straw are produced in California.”
“In addition, I had no input into, or influence on, the decisions made by the California Horse Racing Board,” Baffert said.
He pointed out Justify was drug tested by officials during the Triple Crown run, and he called on those agencies to release information related to the test results.
Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, said Justify passed pre- and post-race tests for the Kentucky Derby. He said officials there were unaware of a failed test in California.
“Justify is the one of the finest horses I’ve had the privilege of training and by any standard is one of the greatest of all time,” Baffert said. “I am proud to stand by his record, and my own.”
Justify was retired from racing after becoming the 13th Triple Crown winner and his owners reportedly received at least a $60 million breeding fee. He won all six of his starts.
According to the Times, a lab sent notice of the positive drug test on April 18 and a handful of racing officials and people with ties to the colt knew about it.
Several weeks later, on May 5, Justify, the favorite, won the Kentucky Derby by 2 1/2 lengths.
Rick Sams, who ran the drug lab for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission from 2011 to 2018, told The Times that the drug can be used to clear a horse’s airway and improve its heart rate. The excessive amount of scopolamine reportedly found in Justify, he told the paper, indicated the drug was used to enhance performance.
CNN’s Stephanie Becker, David Close and Joe Sutton contributed to this report