SACRAMENTO — Triple Crown winner Justify tested positive for drugs in California weeks before he won the Kentucky Derby last year, The New York Times reported.
It said Justify had large amounts of scopolamine in his system, a banned drug that the National Center for Biotechnology Information says can affect performance in horses.
If the state’s horse racing officials had followed the rules, the failed drug test would have disqualified the 3-year-old chestnut colt from the famous derby, the paper said in the explosive report Wednesday night. But instead, it took the California Horse Racing Board more than a month to confirm the results, and it opted to drop the case after finding out, the paper said, citing reviewed documents.
In addition to not filing a public complaint as it normally would, the board also lowered the penalty for horses that test positive for the same banned substance Justify had in his system, according to the report.
Justify won the Santa Anita Derby on April 7 last year, then failed the drug test after that race, according to the paper. It said the lab sent notice of the positive drug test on April 18 and a handful of racing officials and people with ties to the colt knew about it.
Just over two weeks later, on May 5, Justify won the Kentucky Derby, the first of the three races that make up the Triple Crown.
“I unequivocally reject any implication that Scopolamine was ever intentionally administered to Justify, or any of my horses,” Justify’s trainer, Bob Baffert, said in a statement through his attorney. He claimed the “trace amounts of the drug” found in test results were “undoubtedly” due to the horse’s feed being contaminated by jimson weed, “a naturally growing substance in areas where hay and straw are produced in California.”
“In addition, I had no input into, or influence on, the decisions made by the California Horse Racing Board,” Baffert said.
He pointed out Justify was tested in three jurisdictions during the Triple Crown run, and he called on those agencies to release information related to the test results. “Justify is the one of the finest horses I’ve had the privilege of training and by any standard is one of the greatest of all time,” Baffert said. “I am proud to stand by his record, and my own.”
In a brief statement to CNN, California Horse Racing Board Executive Director Rick Baedeker said, “We take seriously the integrity of horse racing in California and are committed to implementing the highest standards of safety and accountability for all horses, jockeys and participants.” He said there would be a further response Thursday.
Earlier, Baedeker told the Times that regulators acted with caution because the drug is also found in jimson weed, which can grow near dung and become mixed with feed. “There was no way that we could have come up with an investigative report prior to the Kentucky Derby,” he told the paper. ” … 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.”
Rick Sams, who ran the drug lab for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission from 2011 to 2018, told The Times that the drug can be used to clear a horse’s airway and improve its heart rate. The excessive amount of scopolamine reportedly found in Justify, he told the paper, indicated the drug was used to enhance performance.
The colt was retired last year after he won all six annual races including the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.