On a random Wednesday night, looking up the drug scopolamine was pretty low on the list of things to be doing while preparing for Saturday’s Woodbine Mile.
But here we are.
The New York Times bombshell article on Justify, penned by Joe Drape, cast long shadows over the sport of horse racing, the transparency of its regulatory watchdogs and the 13th Triple Crown winner.
According to the report, Justify failed a drug test after winning the Santa Anita Derby, a race that provided him the points necessary to qualify for the 2018 Kentucky Derby, the race that propelled him into becoming a Triple Crown champion. If disqualified from that race, he would have had zero points and no road to Louisville for the first leg of racing’s Triple Crown.
The California Horse Racing Board took more than a month to confirm the results of the test that showed that Justify had an amount of scopolamine in his system greater than the amount allowed.
The newspaper of record stated that the concentration of the substance found in the drug sample was 300 nanograms per milliliter. For reference, one nanogram is one billionth of a gram.
The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities recommends that the agreed upon residue limit is 60 ng/ml. Some racing commissions consider a concentration above 75 ng/ml as a positive.
Per the Times report, the executive director of the CHRB referenced that the drug could be found in jimson weed, which can grow wildly and become mixed in feed and that “environmental contamination” is cited as a defense.
Trainer Bob Baffert, after being notified four days before shipping Justify to Louisville, requested another sample from the test to be sent to an independent lab. That test confirmed the result three days after the colt’s Derby win.
The problem, which always seems to come back to bite the industry, is that decisions were made behind closed doors and not made public. The CHRB investigations unit never issued a complaint or scheduled a hearing, which would have been the protocol.
Instead, based on the Times report, in August 2018, the CHRB commissioners met in a private executive session and voted unanimously not to proceed with the case against Baffert.
Scopolamine can occur naturally in certain plants, but if administered deliberately, can have performance enhancing results. According to a tweet from veterinarian Sid Gustafson DVM, “Scopolamine is an anti-cholinergic doping agent similar to atropine. Anti-cholinergics are widely-documented performance enhancers.”
On Thursday, Baffert’s attorney, W. Craig Robertson III, responded to the Times article, calling it “long on sensationalism, short on facts, and does a great disservice to Mr. Baffert, Justify, and the entire horse racing industry.” The statement commended the CHRB for making “the wise decision” and that they “did right by all parties including the industry, in this case.”
The statement denied “any intentional administration of Scopoloamine to Justify” and that it “also defies logic and common sense.”
The statement pointed towards “the long history of environmental contamination cases involving Scopolamine in California” and that the “alleged positive was the result of environmental contamination from hay or straw.”
Justify had to go through drug testing after each Triple Crown race, which he came back clean. Churchill Downs President Kevin Flanery issued a statement today regarding the Derby.
"We do know that all pre- and post-race tests for 2018 Kentucky Derby participants came back clean, including Justify. In advance of our race each year, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission conducts pre-race out-of-competition testing for every Kentucky Derby starter and all starters’ results were clean. After the race, the top finishers are tested for a myriad of banned substances and the results for all were clean,” Flanery stated.
So both sides of the story are out there and the court of public opinion has now cast doubt over the incredible accomplishments of Justify, a horse that corralled racing’s holy grail in a racing career that spanned a mere 112 days.
The mainstream media grabbed it immediately and went to town, putting our already tender sport from a rash of horse deaths at Santa Anita earlier in the year, right in the middle of the grill with the temperature on high.
After becoming a laughingstock after this year’s Derby disqualification, the sport continues to portray itself poorly.
When common sense and transparency are warranted, horse racing puts the blinkers on.
When everybody is in charge, nobody is in charge.
Conflicts of interest? You betcha. The chairman of the CHRB owns an interest in horses trained by Baffert. In addition, two other CHRB board members employ trainers and jockeys they regulate. Another bad look.
With every crisis, a learning opportunity is presented.
Some have proffered that a racing commissioner is the answer. I’m not quite sure that is it, but a national oversight board with representation from all facets of the game (yes, even the bettors) could be a step in the right direction.
The sport is on a sloppy track.
The next move may be the most important one.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.