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A prize-winning race horse reportedly failed a drug test but was allowed to compete in the Kentucky Derby anyway — eventually winning the Triple Crown

A prize-winning race horse reportedly failed a drug test but was allowed to compete in the Kentucky Derby anyway — eventually winning the Triple Crown

Race horse Justify made history in 2018 by being the first colt, who did not race as 2-year-old, to win the 2018 Triple Crown in over a century.

However, documents uncovered by The New York Times Wednesday showed that the race horse failed a drug test prior to the Kentucky Derby, the first of three races in the American Triple Crown.

Chuck Winner, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, owns financial interest in Justify and other horses trained by "Hall of Fame" trainer Bob Baffert, but The Times did not find evidence of "pressure or tampering by Justify's owners."

Justify was tested on April 7, 2018, the date of the Santa Anita Derby, which Justify won — a victory needed to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

The samples were sent to the lab on April 10. The results revealed an "excessive" amount of scopolamine — a banned substance — in the horse's system, suggesting that it was intentionally used.

The drug can "can act as a bronchodilator to clear a horse's airway and optimize a horse's heart rate, making the horse more efficient," The Times wrote, citing Dr. Rick Sams, who previously worked in the drug lab for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. In humans it is used to treat stomach issues.

The consequences that usually follow a failed drug test would be forfeiture of the prize money and disqualification, which could have quashed Justify's entry to the Kentucky Derby.

According documents and memos seen by The Times, the timeline went as follows:

  • April 18, lab sends out result.
  • April 20, equine medical director for the board Dr. Rick Arthur sends email to lawyers, Rick Baedeker, executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, and its interim chief investigator saying that the case would proceed "differently than usual." (Baedeker told The Times he beleives this meant it would be rigorous.)
  • April 26, Baffert is notified. He requests an independent lab test. (Baffert did not provide a comment to The Times.)
  • May 1, sample is sent to independent lab.
  • May 5, Kentucky Derby is held. Justify wins.
  • May 8, second lab verifies initial result. Baedeker tells California Horse Racing Board, and a memo from Baedeker says, "The C.H.R.B. investigations unit will issue a complaint and a hearing will be scheduled." There is no evidence of a complaint or a hearing.
  • May 19, Justify wins Preakness Stakes.
  • June 9, Justify wins Belmont Stakes, therefore winning Triple Crown.
  • August 23, according to The Times, Baedeker "said he presented the Justify case directly to the commissioners of the California Horse Racing Board in a private executive session, a step he had never taken in his five-and-a-half-year tenure." The board votes unanimously not to move the case forward.

Read more: Justify wins Kentucky Derby in the rainiest race in 144 years

A few months after deciding to drop the case, the board decides to lower the penalty for a horse testing positive for scopolamine to a fine and suspension.

In response to The Times, Baedeker said that timing complicated their response.

"There was no way that we could have come up with an investigative report prior to the Kentucky Derby," he told The Times. "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."

He also said there was an abundance of caution because scopolamine can be found in jimson weed, which could have contaminated the feed, saying that other horses had had traces of the drug below the "screening level." The Times said that "little supporting evidence" was provided to back up this claim.

Justify's breeding rights were sold for $60 million at the end of May 2018.

Read the full story at The New York Times »