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The New York Times reports 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify tested positive for the banned performance-enhancing drug scopolamine on April 8, 2018 following his win in the Santa Anita Derby. As a result, he shouldn’t have been eligible to run in that year’s Kentucky Derby.
The colt’s win in Santa Anita gave him enough qualifying points to run in the Kentucky Derby, which was the first leg in his campaign to become the 13th horse to win the Triple Crown.
According to the Times, the California Horse Racing Board dealt with the failed drug test behind closed doors instead of filing a public complaint like it normally would. Justify’s trainer Bob Baffert was reportedly told about the drug test almost three weeks after it happened.
The California Horse Racing Board’s executive director Rick Baedeker “acknowledged that it was a delicate case because of its timing” since the Derby was just weeks away. He said they didn’t want to rush an investigation.
Four months after that, the board “disposed of the inquiry altogether during a closed-door executive session.” They reasoned that the result could have been from the colt eating contaminated food. Scopolamine can be found in jimson weed, which can sometimes get mixed in with feed and enter a horse’s system.
That October, the California Horse Racing Board lessened the penalty for horses who test positive for scopolamine.
The Times also reports that they didn’t find any evidence of tampering or involvement by Justify’s owners in any document they reviewed.
However, the horse racing world is small and interconnected. In 2015, Baffert, one of horse racing’s biggest names, had already given the world its first Triple Crown winner since 1977 with Zayat Racing Stables’ American Pharoah. He also happens to train a horse that Chuck Winner, California Horse Racing Board’s chairman, owns a share of.
The bombshell comes at a time when horse racing is under scrutiny for a controversial 2019 Kentucky Derby and an alarming uptick in race horse deaths. Santa Anita, the same track where Justify won his Kentucky Derby qualifying race with an alleged amount of scopolamine in his system, saw 30 horses die in a single meet despite track evaluations and investigations, the addition of more precautionary measures and a string of protests, including public outcry from California senator Dianne Feinstein.