The term “horse racing ethics” is justly regarded as an oxymoron, and the stunning scandal revealed yesterday shows why.
The U.S. Thoroughbred Racing Triple Crown is one of the most prestigious achievements in all of sports. The three races that make up the Triple Crown, all competed in by three-year-old horses, are the Kentucky Derby, run over the 1 1⁄4-mile dirt track at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky; the Preakness Stakes, run over the 1 3⁄16-mile (1.9 km) dirt track at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland; and
the Belmont Stakes, run over the 1 1⁄2-mile (2.4 km) dirt track (the longest in U.S. thoroughbred racing) at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.
The first Triple Crown winner was Sir Barton in 1919, and there have been only twelve since, among them the most fabled names in the sport: War Admiral, Count Fleet, Whirlaway, Secretariat, Affirmed. Winning the Triple Crown is a bonanza for the sport as well as the owner of the victorious horse, which will eventually demand huge stud fees. After Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, no horse achieved that pinnacle for 37 years. Then, finally, American Pharaoh broke the drought in 2015. A filly out of that Triple Crown winner recently sold for a record $8.2 million. The Triple Crown is a big deal; in thoroughbred racing, there is no bigger deal.
The thoroughbred racing world only had to wait three years for another super-champion this time: Justify won the Triple Crown in 2018. Now we know, however, that the horse was an illicit competitor, and should have been disqualified. This is approximately the horse racing equivalent of gamblers rigging baseball’s World Series in 1919, a scandal that almost destroyed the sport.
This week we learned, courtesy of a New York Times investigation, that Justify had tested positive for the banned drug scopolamine after winning the Santa Anita Derby on April 7, 2018. That win qualified the horse to run in the Kentucky Derby, one month later, in which he would be a likely favorite to win. Behind closed doors, the California Horse Racing Board first stalled on acting, then decided to dismiss the case after the colt went on to win the Triple Crown.
By the rules, Justify’s test result should have meant a disqualification from the Santa Anita victory, forfeiture of the purse, and his removal from the Kentucky Derby field. California regulators, however, waited until April 26, nine days before the Kentucky Derby, to inform Justify’s Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert. Baffert took the strategic stalling move of demanding that a second sample be tested by an independent lab. The original positive results were confirmed on May 8, three days after Justify won the Kentucky Derby.
The usual procedure would be for the racing board to file a complaint and hold a hearing. It was not followed. On August 23, four months after Justify failed the drug test and two months after Justify had won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes to complete his Triple Crown, the board’s executive director, Rick Baedeker, engineered a unanimous vote by the board’s commissioners to drop the case.
Reportedly the rationalization used was that the test results could have come from the horse eating contaminated food—I think Barry Bonds tried that one too. The New York Times, however, confirmed through an expert that the amount of scopolamine in Justify’s system almost certainly “came from intentional intervention.”
Hedging its bets, the California board later changed the penalty for a failed scopolamine test from a disqualification to a fine and a possible suspension. That would not affect the proper handling of a failed test under the old rules.
These facts, if true, show a brazen, intentional breach of rules by the administrators of the sport to facilitate a Triple Crown win by a horse that should not have been allowed to run at all. Justify–an ironic name!—cheated; none of the other horses qualified for the Kentucky Derby after winning a race with the advantage of a banned drug. Since Justify was, under the rules, not eligible to run in the first race of the Triple Crown, there should have been no Triple Crown quest. The sport covered it all up.
“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,” the California Horse Racing Board said in a statement.
That’s funny. Don’t you think that’s funny?
At very least, Justify’s Kentucky Derby win should be declared void, and the second-place finisher, Good Magic, should be declared the winner. Justify’s owner should also have to turn over the $1.4 million dollar purse. Of course Justify should also be removed from the list of Triple Crown winners.
I have no idea what the rules say about the other two races: can a horse that has been disqualified for the Derby still run in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes? So far, I can’t find the answer. Of course, it is clear that this sport doesn’t follow its own rules, so maybe there is no answer.
If this demonstration of the complete lack of integrity at the highest level of the sport doesn’t kill horse racing, it should. Supposedly there will be another official statement today.
This should be rich.