Triple Crown winning horse Justify failed a drug test after his last prep race in California just weeks before the 2018 Kentucky Derby, but the state horse racing regulator quietly swept the infraction under the rug, the New York Times reports. The allegations outlined by the Times are deeply unflattering for the sport, implicating racing’s most recognizable figure in white-haired trainer Bob Baffert, and raising questions about conflicts of interest and favoritism in governance of the sport.
According to the Times, Justify failed the test following the horse’s win in the Santa Anita Derby, a prep race that earned the Baffert-trained 3-year-old a spot in the Kentucky Derby a month later. When the test for the drug scopolamine came back positive “[i]nstead of the failed drug test causing a speedy disqualification, the California Horse Racing Board took more than a month to confirm the results,” the Times reports. “Then, instead of filing a public complaint as it usually does, the board made a series of decisions behind closed doors as it moved to drop the case and lighten the penalty for any horse found to have the banned substance that Justify tested positive for in its system.”
When notified of the positive test less than two weeks before the Derby, Baffert requested an independent lab test to confirm the result, as allowed by rule. Scopolamine, which is used to treat stomach ailments in humans, can boost horses’ respiratory and circulatory functioning allowing them to perform better. When the second lab confirmed the result three days after Justify stormed to victory at Churchill Downs, the stakes had changed dramatically. Instead of pursuing a headline-grabbing, likely litigious investigation into the sport’s newest star being trained by its brightest light, California regulators basically did nothing at all. Within weeks of the Derby win, Justify’s breeding rights had already been sold for $60 million.
“Test results, emails and internal memorandums in the Justify case show how California regulators waited nearly three weeks, until the Kentucky Derby was only nine days away, to notify Baffert that his Derby favorite had failed a doping test,” the Times reports. “Four months later—and more than two months after Justify, Baffert and the horse’s owners celebrated their Triple Crown victory in New York—the board disposed of the inquiry altogether during a closed-door executive session. It decided, with little evidence, that the positive test could have been a result of Justify’s eating contaminated food. The board voted unanimously to dismiss the case. In October, it changed the penalty for a scopolamine violation to the lesser penalty of a fine and possible suspension.”