Justify drug test cover-up deals immense blow to US horse racing

Having spent the first six months of the year under intense media scrutiny as 30 horses died either racing or training at Santa Anita, US racing suffered another immense blow to its reputation on Wednesday when it emerged that Justify, last year’s Triple Crown winner, tested positive for a banned substance after winning the Santa Anita Derby, the race in which he qualified to run in the Kentucky Derby.

There are a couple of chapters to this story. The first is that the horse tested positive for a potentially performance-enhancing drug after victory in a vital trial for the first leg of the Triple Crown. Justify was a 12-1 shot for the Kentucky Derby before he ran in the Santa Anita Derby on 7 April. After a three-length success there, he was the favourite for the Run for the Roses. Two months later, he was Bob Baffert’s second Triple Crown winner in four seasons.

But without a first-two finish at Santa Anita, there would have been no Kentucky Derby for Justify, and thus no Triple Crown. Baffert knew this as well as anyone in April 2018, and he was not, as the saying has it, entertaining an angel unawares. Justify did not see a racecourse until 18 February, but in the run-up to the Dubai World Cup at Meydan in late March last year, Baffert was already referring to Aidan O’Brien’s Mendelssohn – who ended up finishing last in Justify’s Kentucky Derby – as “the second-best Scat Daddy in the world”. The best, in Baffert’s opinion, was undoubtedly Justify.

This is the angle that has been seized upon by America’s mainstream media after the New York Times broke the story on Wednesday evening. And understandably so, because it stinks, even though scopolamine is not, on the face of it, the PED of choice for any trainer trying to guarantee victory in a must-win race.

For one thing, its effects are likely to be marginal at best. It is certainly no guarantee of an extra five lengths when you need it most. If it were, let’s face it, we would probably have heard a lot more about it before now. Instead, there has been a trickle of positives California dating back to the mid-1990s, most of which are believed to derive from feed being contaminated with jimson weed, which grows wild where horse dung is present.

Accidental contamination is still a very possible explanation for Justify’s positive, though the level of scopolamine in the colt’s system was well above the threshold level and, according to a vet quoted by the NYT, suggestive of “intentional intervention”. The possibility of accidental contamination was emphasised by Baffert’s lawyer, Craig Robertson III, in a statement issued on behalf of the trainer on Thursday evening.

The statement says that “there was never any intentional administration of scopolamine to Justify”, adding that there is “zero scientific evidence to suggest that scopolamine has any performance-enhancing properties”. Furthermore, Robertson insists that “there is no doubt that, with regard to Justify, the alleged positive was the result of environmental contamination from hay or straw”.

But an important point about earlier positive tests in California is that these have led, inevitably, to the disqualification of the horse concerned. When a horse is found to have run with high levels of a a potentially performance-enhancing drug in its system, there is really no alternative, which is why the second chapter in the story – the response of the California Horse Racing Board to the test result – may well prove more significant in terms of its long-term impact.

The positive result came back from the lab on 18 April. Baffert was not told about the finding until 26 April and, naturally, requested a second test to confirm the result. That did not go to for testing until 1 May, and the result came back a week later – three days after the Kentucky Derby. Why the delay, both in passing on the result and then sending off the “B” sample, which delayed the start of any proceedings until after the Derby?

The confirmatory test was the point at which, finally, the cogs in the CHRB’s disciplinary system should have started to turn. But no charge was ever laid against Baffert. Instead, on 23 August, a month after Justify became the first Triple Crown winner to retire undefeated, a closed meeting of the CHRB committee – chaired by Chuck Winner, who has shares in Baffert-trained horses – effectively voted to simply forget it ever happened.

It is a decision that manages the impressive feat of appearing both cowardly and reckless at the same time. Cowardly, because it failed to enforce the rules, presumably with an eye on the catastrophic fallout that would result if the positive test were finally revealed, four months too late. Reckless, because of the even more disastrous consequences of being caught out in an apparent cover-up.

Those consequences will be felt far beyond California. At Churchill Downs in Kentucky, for instance, they can only watch and wince as the reputation of US racing’s most famous race is trashed. The damage to the image of the sport as a whole in the US, arriving so soon after the travails of Santa Anita’s winter season, is incalculable.

One of the (multiple) structural problems for racing in America is that it is administered on a state-by-state basis. There is no regulator, like our British Horseracing Authority or France Galop across the Channel, in overall control.
The CHRB was, undoubtedly, in a tricky situation when its testing lab revealed that the favourite for the Kentucky Derby, in effect, not qualified to run. But in the end, it seems to have gambled that Justify’s positive test could be kept under wraps forever, and on Wednesday evening, it lost. The whole of America’s racing industry, still the largest in the world, can expect to be paying the debt for some time to come.

Quick guide

Chris Cook’s Friday tips

Chester 1.50 Cognac 2.25 Powertrain 3.00 Trinity Lake 3.30 Sir Maximilian 4.05 Mayne 4.40 Hereby 5.15 Salam Zayed (nb)

Doncaster 2.10 Servalan 2.40 Saroog 3.10 Stradivarius 3.45 Alligator Alley 4.20 Visinari 4.55 Talap 5.30 Citron Major 6.00 Banksea

Sandown 2.20 Spreadsheet 2.50 Rewaayat 3.20 Miss Yoda 3.55 Casanova 4.30 Tukhoom 5.05 Gleeful 5.35 Skyman

Salisbury 4.35 Red Missile 5.10 Royal Ambition 5.40 Love Powerful 6.10 Grisons (nap) 6.40 King’s Advice 7.10 Tonyx

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