Fans cheer Triple Crown winning Justify Saturday night at Churchill Downs
Scott Utterback, Louisville Courier Journal
The appearances are appalling. If the California Horse Racing Board concealed the positive drug test of a Triple Crown winner throughout his Triple Crown campaign, that’s going to be terribly tough to Justify.
If Bob Baffert’s prize colt failed a drug test more than two weeks before winning the 2018 Kentucky Derby, as the New York Times’ Joe Drape reported Wednesday, and an independent lab confirmed the result three days after the race, keeping it quiet suggests a cover-up, a conspiracy and another black eye for a badly bruised sport.
Instead of being disqualified from the Santa Anita Derby and therefore ineligible for the Derby, Justify swept the 3-year-old classics and was retired to stud more than a year before Drape’s report that he had run his final Derby prep on 300 nanograms of scopolamine
Whatever the rationale for keeping that quiet, however the CHRB will spin its procedures and its concern for due process, this looks like another case of an industry hiding its dirty laundry at a time it ought to be embracing transparency. It looks awful.
“This nasty cover-up has cheated the betting public and the true winners of the Santa Anita and Kentucky derbies,” PETA Vice President Kathy Guillermo said, almost on cue. “… Even worse, Bob Baffert apparently drugged and harmed Justify — a horse who was completely at his mercy. Baffert should be suspended and held accountable, and Justify should be disqualified from the Triple Crown victory. Even at the highest levels, horseracing is crooked to the core and must be overhauled.”
Overheated rhetoric aside, thoroughbred racing cannot be trusted to police itself. It cannot continue to be regulated by insiders inclined to protect the industry’s short-term interests over its long-term integrity. A cover-up that spanned the entirety of the 2018 Triple Crown campaign makes a persuasive closing argument for independent national oversight of a sport too clubby and secretive for its own good; one that continues to struggle at staying out of its own way.
What happened here makes the 2019 Kentucky Derby disqualification of Maximum Security seem as innocent as a split infinitive. It bespeaks the kind of backroom dealings and short-sighted leadership up with which we should not put.
Perhaps there is a plausible and innocent explanation for Justify testing positive. Perhaps, as the CHRB decided/rationalized, Justify’s drug test could have been the result of his eating contaminated food prior to the Santa Anita Derby. Perhaps, in order to allow investigation and deliberations to run their normal course, regulators felt an obligation to proceed with caution befitting a horse of historic significance.
Perhaps, as CHRB equine medical director Rick Arthur told Thoroughbred Daily News, there was “no way the case could have been resolved prior to the Kentucky Derby, which would have been the only grounds for removing the points..”
Yet when CHRB executive director Rick Baedeker notified his board members three days after the Derby that a complaint would be issued and a hearing scheduled, his failure to follow through invites suspicion. That CHRB chairman Chuck Winner owns a piece of some horses in Baffert’s barn is an obvious conflict of interest.
Maybe everyone involved is entirely honorable, scrupulous and objective. Still, the whole thing looks lousy. Whenever industry insiders double as regulators, their ability to render arm’s-length decisions is inherently compromised. When they make significant decisions behind closed doors and neglect to clue in the general public about the relevant issues, it erodes whatever trust the industry has earned.
Prior to the 2005 Santa Anita Derby, the filly Sweet Catomine was taken off the grounds for treatment under an assumed name while being misrepresented as healthy to the betting public. The horse’s connections circulated stories about Sweet Catomine jogging over the track on a morning she was not even on site.
After Sweet Catomine finished fifth as the even-money favorite, and her cover stories were exposed as lies, the CHRB filed charges against the horse’s owner, Marty Wygod, for conduct detrimental to horse racing.
That the case against Wygod was subsequently dismissed by California stewards suggested good lawyering and limited backbone. It would not be the last time racing justice might have been better served by an independent judge.