On June 9, 2018, a colt named Justify thundered home to the full-throated cheers of a capacity crowd to win the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes and claim horse racing’s Triple Crown, one of the most storied achievements in sports.
It was the perfect ending to an improbable journey for a talented horse, his eclectic ownership group, and his Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert.
Only a few people, however, knew the secret that Baffert carried with him into the winner’s circle that day: Justify had failed a drug test weeks before the first race in the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby. That meant Justify should not have run in the Derby, if the sport’s rules were followed.
They were not, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times. Instead of the failed drug test causing a speedy disqualification, the California Horse Racing Board took more than a month to confirm the results. Then, instead of filing a public complaint as it usually does, the board made a series of decisions behind closed doors as it moved to drop the case and lighten the penalty for any horse found to have the banned substance that Justify tested positive for in its system.
Only a handful of racing officials and people connected to Justify knew about the failed drug test, which occurred April 7, 2018, after Justify won the Santa Anita Derby. He tested positive for the drug scopolamine, a banned substance that veterinarians say can enhance performance, especially in the amount that was found in the horse.
Justify was undefeated at the time, but he still needed to finish first or second in the Santa Anita Derby to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, on May 5. While the colt won at Santa Anita, the failed drug test would mean disqualification and forfeiture of both the prize money and the entry into the Kentucky Derby that came with the victory.
None of that happened, though.
Test results, emails and internal memorandums in the Justify case show how California regulators waited nearly three weeks, until the Kentucky Derby was only nine days away, to notify Baffert that his Derby favorite had failed a doping test.
Four months later — and more than two months after Justify, Baffert and the horse’s owners celebrated their Triple Crown victory in New York — the board disposed of the inquiry altogether during a closed-door executive session. It decided, with little evidence, that the positive test could have been a result of Justify’s eating contaminated food. The board voted unanimously to dismiss the case. In October, it changed the penalty for a scopolamine violation to the lesser penalty of a fine and possible suspension.
Baffert did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him for this article.
Rick Baedeker, the executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, acknowledged that it was a delicate case because of its timing. He said regulators moved cautiously because scopolamine could be found in jimson weed, which can grow wildly where dung is present and become inadvertently mixed in feed, and that “environmental contamination” is often used as a defense.
“We could end up in Superior Court one day,” he said.
“There was no way that we could have come up with an investigative report prior to the Kentucky Derby,” he added. “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.”
The documents reviewed by The Times do not show any evidence of pressure or tampering by Justify’s owners. Horse racing, however, is uniquely insular.
The chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, Chuck Winner, owns an interest in horses trained by Baffert. Two other board members employ trainers and jockeys they regulate.
Justify’s owners included power brokers in the sport such as Kentucky-based WinStar Farm, owned by Kenny Troutt, a billionaire commercial thoroughbred breeder; the mysterious China Horse Club, whose 200 members from mainland China and beyond have paid $1 million to join; and an equine investment fund with ties to the billionaire investor George Soros. Baffert is America’s pre-eminent trainer. He has won the Kentucky Derby five times. In 2015, he trained American Pharoah, the first horse to win the Triple Crown after Affirmed won in 1978.
With Justify, Baffert was faced with a late-developing colt who did not race as a 2-year-old. The last horse to win the Derby without starting as a 2-year-old was Apollo in 1882.
As is customary, blood and urine samples from Justify and 34 other horses who competed on the day of the Santa Anita Derby were delivered on April 10 to a lab at the University of California, Davis.
The lab sent notice on April 18, two and a half weeks before the Kentucky Derby, that Justify had tested positive for scopolamine, which is normally used to treat stomach or intestinal problems, such as nausea and muscle spasms, in humans.
Horse racing has a long history of trainers’ repurposing drugs in pursuit of a performance edge. Frog and cobra venom, Viagra, cocaine, heart medicines and steroids have all been detected in drug tests.
Scopolamine cases have resulted in disqualifications, purse reimbursements, fines and suspensions over the decades.
Dr. Rick Sams, who ran the drug lab for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission from 2011 to 2018, said scopolamine can act as a bronchodilator to clear a horse’s airway and optimize a horse’s heart rate, making the horse more efficient. He said the amount of scopolamine found in Justify — 300 nanograms per milliliter — was excessive, and suggested the drug was intended to enhance performance.
“I think it has to come from intentional intervention,” he said.
Baffert and other trainers in California were well aware that scopolamine was a banned substance and that it could occasionally be found in jimson weed, though the plant’s strong odor and foul taste make it unappealing. In November 2016, Dr. Rick Arthur, the racing board’s equine medical director, warned horsemen to be alert to jimson weed in their feed and hay, saying that a positive test for the drug is “totally avoidable.”
“Now, the likelihood under our current procedures of getting a positive from environmental contamination is rather low,” Dr. Arthur said at the time.
On April 20, two days after learning of Justify’s positive test, Dr. Arthur wrote in an email circulated to Baedeker, the board’s executive director, its lawyers and its interim chief investigator that the case would be “handled differently than usual.” He asked for further testing and review of the data.
In an interview, Baedeker said he believed Dr. Arthur meant that the investigation had to be thorough.
Other doping cases have moved swiftly through California’s racing bureaucracy. In March, an employee of a trainer, William Morey, was caught on surveillance giving a prohibited drug to a horse. Lab tests were conducted, an investigation completed and a complaint filed and made public 28 days later.
On the morning of April 26, four days before Justify was to ship to Louisville, Ky., for the Kentucky Derby, Baffert received notification that Justify had tested positive for scopolamine. Baffert, as was his right, asked that another sample from that test be sent to an approved independent lab.
It was sent on May 1, four days before the Derby, and that lab confirmed the result on May 8. (By then, Justify had won the Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown.) The same day, Baedeker notified the board members that Justify had tested positive for scopolamine.
“The C.H.R.B. investigations unit will issue a complaint and a hearing will be scheduled,” he told them in a memorandum obtained by The Times.
No one ever filed a complaint and the hearing never took place.
Instead, on Aug. 23, 2018, more than four months after the failed test, 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 voted unanimously not to proceed with the case against Baffert.
Without a formal complaint, Baedeker said state law prohibited him from discussing in detail the evidence of environmental contamination. In a written response, Baedeker said that a handful of other horses may have been contaminated, but he offered little supporting evidence.
“The other horses had the presence of scopolamine but below the screening level and therefore were not positive tests,” he said in a written response.
The California racing board, along with the horse racing industry at large, has been under fire because of the death of 30 racehorses since Dec. 26 at Santa Anita Park. The Los Angeles district attorney is investigating the deaths, and the state legislature has held hearings and considered changes to improve how horses are treated and tracks regulated.
California statutes do not prohibit active horse owners from being appointed to the regulatory board overseeing the sport. Beyond the chairman’s owner-trainer relationship with Baffert, the board’s vice chairwoman, Madeline Auerbach, and another commissioner, Dennis Alfieri, employ trainers and jockeys in California.
Joe Gorajec, a former chairman of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, a trade group of industry commissioners, said the system was doomed to fail in California and other states in which the regulators are in business with the people they are there to police.
“Minimal prohibitions should preclude active horse owners, trainers, breeders and jockeys, or anyone else that derives income from the business, to serve on a commission,” said Gorajec, who was executive director of the Indiana Horse Racing Commission. “Commissioners should be prohibited from wagering in the state they serve.”
In the months that followed the decision to drop the case against Justify, the racing board moved to lessen the penalty for a scopolamine violation from disqualification and forfeiture of purse to only a fine and suspension.
Baedeker said regulators had been considering a move to the lesser standard. He said the plan was to appeal for the lesser classification if the matter came before a hearing.
“Our staff failed to bring those changes to the board — we admit that,” he said.
Baffert has endured previous regulatory proceedings in California
In 2013, after seven horses in his care died over a 16-month period, he was the subject of a report by the board, which revealed he had been giving every horse in his barn a thyroid hormone without checking to see if any of them had thyroid problems.
Baffert told the investigators that he thought the medication would help “build up” his horses even though the drug is generally associated with weight loss. In that case, the board’s report found no evidence “that C.H.R.B. rules or regulations have been violated.”
In retirement, Justify mates as often as three times a day. Coolmore, the international breeding concern that bought Justify’s breeding rights, receives as much as $150,000 for a mating, or $450,000 a day over a five-month breeding season. That means Coolmore has already recouped its $60 million investment.
Justify is currently in Australia. Owners there have their mares lined up in the hope of getting what is supposed to be the perfect seed from the perfect racehorse.