Sep 12, 2019

Triple Crown winner Justify failed drug test before Kentucky Derby: NYT

Justify, ridden by jockey Mike Smith, at the Belmont Stakes, 2018. Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Justify, the celebrated American thoroughbred racehorse, failed a drug test a month before winning the 2018 Kentucky Derby, the New York Times reported Wednesday.

Why it matters: In 2018, Justify became the 13th winner of the prestigious Triple Crown, triumphing in the Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes — paying out $381.56 million in total, according to calculations based on Horse Racing Business data. NYT reports that Justify failed an April drug test, which should've seen the now-retired racehorse banned from the Derby.

The big picture: The California Horse Racing Board was the investigating authority because Justify failed the test at the Santa Anita Derby, the Times reports. The board and racecourse have been under intense scrutiny because of the deaths of 30 horses at Santa Anita Park since December 2018.

  • An investigation has been launched into the Santa Anita Park horse deaths, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced in April this year.
  • Legislation designed to strengthen horse safety and race track accountability was signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom in June.

By the numbers: Per Horse Racing Business, betting in 2018 paid out $149.9 million on the Derby, $93.66 million for the Preakness Stakes and $138 million in the Belmont Stakes.

  • The Derby alone carried a $2 million purse in 2018, with the winner guaranteed 62% of that ($1.24 million), SB Nation reported.
  • Justify entered the Derby as the favorite, with the win paying $7.80, $6 and $4.40 (win/place/show), per ESPN.
  • A bettor in Las Vegas won $150,000 on Justify's Derby win after placing a bet in February when the odds were 300-1, ESPN reported.

What they're saying: The Times reports that Justify was found after the Santa Anita Derby with 300 nanograms per milliliter of scopolamine, a substance that could enhance performance in horses, according to the U.S. Library of Medicine.

  • The California Horse Racing Board took months to confirm the results and decided in secret to drop the case and soften the penalty for any horse with scopolamine, according to the NYT.
  • The substance could have been attributed to the horse eating jimson weed, which is known to contain high levels of scopolamine, the board told the NYT.
  • Bob Baffert, Justify’s Hall of Fame trainer, knew of the results before the Derby, the Times reports. He did not respond to requests for comment on the story.
  • There's no evidence of pressure or tampering by Justify’s owners, according to documents reviewed by the Times.
  • "I think it has to come from intentional intervention," said Dr. Rick Sams, who previously headed the drug lab for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, to the Times.

The other side: California Horse Racing Board executive director Rick Baedeker acknowledged to the NYT that Justify's case was delicate because of its timing, but he stressed that there were accidental environmental contamination concerns over the scopolamine, which is often used as a defense.

"We could end up in Superior Court one day. There was no way that we could have come up with an investigative report prior to the Kentucky Derby. That’s impossible. Well, that’s not impossible, that would have been careless and reckless for us to tell an investigator what usually takes you two months, you have to get done in five days, eight days. We weren’t going to do that."

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