Justify drug controversy pushes horse racing toward the end

Go ahead and mark down 2019 as the beginning of the end for horse racing.

The sport will never completely die off — there is too much money to be gained, from the betting windows to the breeding shed. There will probably always be a Kentucky Derby, for the cultural Americana of it all. But in terms of its ability to maintain an already tenuous position in the American sporting hierarchy, horse racing’s days are numbered now.

Too many terrible headlines. Too much erosion of public trust.

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The latest terrible headline dropped Wednesday night, courtesy of the New York Times: 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify, just the 13th horse to accomplish that feat, tested positive for a banned substance less than a month before the Kentucky Derby — and nobody knew about it until now. Per the Times, the California Horse Racing Board reportedly deviated from its own protocol in dealing with the positive test for scopolamine, a prohibited substance. And, along the way, the CHRB kept the entire affair completely secret from the public.

This follows the two other dominant storylines in the sport in 2019: dead horses and a complete fiasco of a Triple Crown series. From the spate of on-track deaths at Santa Anita Park during the winter to the clumsy disqualification of the Derby winner and subsequent mass defections from the Preakness and Belmont, the first half of the year was really bad. Now the brief but brilliant career of one of the few modern superstar horses has been thrown into question.

The public doesn’t want to watch the athletes in a particular sport die in front of them — especially animals who cannot advocate for their own health and well-being. The public would like some familiar names to root for or against (bet for and against), not a turnstile sport that spits out its young stars after just a couple of big races. And the public would prefer to wager on a sport where it can trust the outcome to be legit.

Trainer Bob Baffert walks Kentucky Derby winner Justify through a barn before the Preakness Stakes. (USAT)
Trainer Bob Baffert walks Kentucky Derby winner Justify through a barn before the Preakness Stakes. (USAT)

Strikes one, two and three for horse racing.

The past year has been a succession of body blows to the credibility of the sport. And with the proliferation of legalized wagering on other sports, there are enough alternatives out there to further tempt bettors to spend their money on something other than horse races.

North American horse racing has been a floating pharmacy of medication for decades, the vast majority of it tolerated at a much higher level than in Europe and other locales. Much of it (too much) has been legal to administer. Plenty of other drugs are covertly injected, ingested and topically applied. From cobra venom to cocaine, the sport has found a dizzying array of methods to try to make slow horses faster or injured horses able to run.

Efforts have been made to change that, but a public suspicion that everything on four legs at a track has been doped is hard to shake. This is why the Justify news is such a big blow — not just the positive test to one of only two horses to win the Triple Crown in the last 40 years, but perhaps moreso the way it was handled by the CHRB.

From Joe Drape’s story in the 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.”

In characteristic horse racing fashion, response to the Times bombshell was slow and insufficient. Justify trainer Bob Baffert, who towers over the sport, said nothing publicly for about 15 hours — which didn’t engender much confidence that there was an easily available explanation for the positive test. When the response did come, it was in the form of a letter from Baffert’s lawyer.

The letter did note that the drug in question is not widely known as a performance enhancer — “no trainer would ever intentionally administer scopolamine to a horse” — and that the substance can be organically produced and introduced into a horse’s feed. But the fact remains that scopolamine is on the banned substance list, and the CHRB has penalized trainers in the past for positive tests.

Ray Paulick, who runs the respected Paulick Report website covering thoroughbred racing, had some salient thoughts on the matter Wednesday night.

“Anecdotally, I have heard about any number of prohibited substances purposely given to horses for ‘off label’ use, and there have been positive tests for some of those drugs,” Paulick wrote. “I have never heard of anyone giving scopolamine to a horse to enhance performance. Nevertheless, as recently as 2008, CHRB has fined a trainer and DQed a horse from a win for a scopolamine positive, even if source was contamination. So CHRB has some explaining to do over why this positive test was treated differently than previous ones – if that is what happened.

“In my opinion, this is not a story about a Triple Crown winner being ‘drugged’ in a qualifying race (though that is how mainstream media will play it up) but about how a regulatory agency secretly handled a case behind closed doors and has left the appearance of a coverup.”

That puts the onus of explanation on the CHRB for why it acted both ponderously and secretively in dealing with the Justify test result. The agency has had no response to the Times story as of mid-afternoon Thursday.

Justify with jockey Mike Smith aboard wins the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown, on June 9, 2018. (Reuters)
Justify with jockey Mike Smith aboard wins the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown, on June 9, 2018. (Reuters)

The length of time taken to act on the results of the positive test was defended by Rick Baedeker of the CHRB in the Times story, saying that it would have been “careless and reckless” to produce an investigative report in the few weeks between the positive test of April 7, 2018, and the running of the Kentucky Derby on May 5. But the handling of the case in top-secret fashion does not reflect well on the board.

Then again, not much has reflected well on horse racing in many months.

The sport staggered into the Triple Crown series in the spring after two dozen horses died at Santa Anita during the winter. The excitement of the Triple Crown is a strong annual tonic, but this year it only provided more upheaval and disillusionment:

• Derby pre-race favorite Omaha Beach was scratched with a breathing issue that was believed to be minor, but the colt still has not raced since last April.

• The race was won by Maximum Security, but he was disqualified for impeding the path of two other horses during the race. The process of taking him down as the winner took 22 minutes, creating a surreal and chaotic scene at Churchill Downs and creating widespread fan uproar.

• Both Maximum Security and the runner-up-turned-winner, Country House, skipped the next two legs of the Triple Crown, gutting the sport’s top annual draw. Country House hasn’t run since the Derby and will not run again in 2019, per trainer Bill Mott, leading to speculation that he’ll never run again.

• Pimlico, home of the Preakness, continues to be a rotting dump of a track that has come to symbolize the deterioration of the entire industry. The refusal of the ownership to put any money into upgrading the facility only underscores the lack of central leadership focused on the good of the game as a whole.

• Belmont winner Sir Winston, who captured that depleted race as much out of Triple Crown attrition as anything else, has not raced since.

Given the complete disarray of the 2019 Triple Crown, the temptation is to look back a year to a chestnut colt’s memorable three-race tour de force. But given the news of this week, some of those good feelings are a bit harder to Justify today.

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