Horse Racing’s Tough Year Keeps Getting Tougher

Horse owners, trainers and racetrack executives are supposed to take care of their athletes, equine and human. When they do not, both are at risk. As we saw earlier this year, 30 horses had to be euthanized after sustaining devastating injuries at Santa Anita Park in Southern California. Their riders, fortunately, were not seriously injured.

And regulatory agencies are supposed to protect the public, in the case of horse racing by “ensuring the integrity, viability and safety” of the industry, according to the California Horse Racing Board’s mission statement.

It is a hard job that requires a certain steadfastness in the face of public pressure. Sometimes that will is there, sometimes not.

On the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, three Kentucky racing officials faced a test of their charge.

With tens of millions of dollars in the balance and a national television audience on the edge of its seat for close to 22 minutes, they did the unthinkable. They disqualified Maximum Security, a colt that appeared to all the world to be the easy winner of the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby.

Maximum Security, however, had jumped a puddle on the rain-soaked track turning for home and almost knocked over a rival, while slowing the momentum of a couple of others. The disqualification deprived the owner, trainer and jockey of their first Derby victory.

But it was a clear foul and the officials followed the rules. They made the second-place horse, a long shot named Country House, the winner, albeit with an asterisk next to his name.

In April 2018, the trainer Bob Baffert faced a crucial situation with a horse named Justify: The colt had to finish first or second in the Santa Anita Derby to qualify for the Kentucky Derby a month later.

Justify prevailed, then failed a drug test for the banned substance scopolamine. The rule on the books at the time required that Justify be disqualified, forfeiting both the prize money and entry into the Derby, the first Triple Crown race.

With nobody looking, California racing officials spent four months investigating the failed test, long enough for Justify to not only compete in the Derby, but also win it, along with the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. In August, after Justify’s breeding rights had been sold for $60 million, the California board — whose chairman at the time, Chuck Winner, had employed Baffert as his trainer — disposed of the inquiry altogether behind closed doors. It happened in an executive session, an approach the board’s executive director had not followed once before during his five-and-a-half-year term.

California officials did not follow their own rules, which should disappoint and dismay anyone who loves the sport of horse racing and values fair play. Justify is the 13th Triple Crown champion. Whether there is an asterisk next to his name is something horse racing fans will have to decide.

The California board’s maneuvering came to light after The New York Times reported on Wednesday how a lack of transparency allowed the failed test to be kept from the public.

In a letter to The Times released on social media, Baffert’s attorney, W. Craig Robertson III, said that Justify’s positive test for the banned substance scopolamine had been the result of “environmental contamination.” He ate jimson weed, was the explanation given.

Robertson offered no evidence of contamination; nor did California regulators when offered the opportunity to respond to The Times before the publication of the article.

In a written statement, the board’s executive director, Rick Baedeker, said that during its investigation, scientists retested samples from other horses at Santa Anita and found trace amounts of the drug in a handful of samples — not enough to prompt a positive result, but enough to allow the board to seriously consider that Justify and the other horses might have eaten some contaminated feed. He said that the trainers of those horses were never notified that there might be a problem.

ImageJustify at the Belmont Stakes last year.
CreditEmma Howells/The New York Times

With the news media demanding answers, Dr. Rick Arthur, the California board’s equine medical director, went to a racing industry publication, The Blood-Horse, to explain why his science had led him and the board to look past the failed test.

He said the presence of an additional chemical in Justify’s biological sample suggested that the scopolamine had to have come from the ingestion of jimson weed rather than a pharmaceutical, and he said many experts have decided scopolamine doesn’t really help anyway. In other words, just trust them.

There is this, though: The quantity of the drug found in Justify suggested that it was not the result of feed or bedding contamination and that it was intended to enhance performance, according to Dr. Rick Sams, who ran the drug lab for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission from 2011 to 2018. Dr. Sams said scopolamine can have performance-enhancing benefits. Dr. Arthur did not explain why there might have been so much more scopolamine in Justify than in the other horses.

No matter which authority one trusts, there is an interesting detail about how this situation was handled. Human athletes who fail drug tests are responsible for whatever substances are found in their systems, regardless of how they got there, because whether or not the athletes intended to, they were competing with an advantage. They also are responsible for attempting to clear their names once they test positive.

In Justify’s case, he was found to have an illegal substance in his system, and then the people who administered the test took it upon themselves to spend four months trying to clear Justify of wrongdoing.

The handling of the case prompts a question for some: What else have California officials made disappear and for whom?

Mick Ruis, the owner and trainer of the Santa Anita Derby runner-up, Bolt d’Oro, wonders that. He is considering a lawsuit against the board. Justify earned $600,000 for the victory, while Bolt d’Oro earned $200,000 as the runner-up.

Ruis said the California board had protected Justify’s trainer, Bob Baffert, a two-time Triple Crown winner and a Hall of Famer.

“The rule was there,” Ruis told The Louisville Courier-Journal. “It’s just real disappointing how we have different sets of rules for different people there in Santa Anita. The horse tested positive. Why didn’t anybody know about it until now?”

It is an excellent question, especially since doping investigations are often handled in a far more public fashion.

After this year of years for racing, with the industry shrinking and tracks everywhere struggling to find enough horses to fill their racing cards, racing executives and regulators are under pressure to step up their game.

Ruis would not be the first to call for greater transparency. It might have allowed Justify, a talented horse, an unquestioned legacy.

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