Horse Racing Ethics: Justify Was A Fake Triple Crown Winner. Now What?

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 Belmont, 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.

7 thoughts on “Horse Racing Ethics: Justify Was A Fake Triple Crown Winner. Now What?

  1. Several days ago a picture of Jeremy Benthem, father of Utilitarianism, graced the blog.

    The case of Justify is a classic example of why the notion of the greatest good for the greatest number is flawed. The flaw lies with the difference between Cardinal and Ordinal utility. Cardinal utility creates a fixed values for decisions while Ordinal utility evaluates decisions on what is best for the decision maker right now.

    When different people with different agendas begin to make value judgements the whole greatest good theory flues out the window.

    In California where they were struggling to keep the sport of kings alive despite having to deal with the problem of horses dying they had to factor in the economic costs of being the “bad guy” who prevented the favored horse from competing. The horse racing industry is on the decline nationally and Justify represented the best chance (in their minds) to get a Triple Crown winner which would give the industry a real boost because people will tune in, or better fill the stands, in hopes of seeing history made.

    I agree that following the rules of the game are important and the ethical decision would be to follow the rules to the letter.

    However, if we understand that rules are devised by people based on their perceptions of positve and negative values at the time of creation then it becomes obvious that the value of rules is based on the subjective preference of rule makers who will choose what is best for the sport as a whole at any given time.

  2. In a world that’s so screwed up and devoid of ethics that it allows “male” individuals to participate in women only races and that “male” individual dominates absolutely, I personally don’t give a crap about what horse racing does. There are way too many people that spend many millions, if not billions of dollars on it for something like this to kill horse racing. They will rationalize this incident into oblivion. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings one bit if horse racing as we know it went away but here’s rationalization for you to keep it; there’s so much money spent in the USA directly or indirectly related to horse racing that if it were to stop the economy would probably take a big hit – it’s kinda like football in that way.

    Many years ago I dated a girl and their family were regulars at the area horse racing tracks. I went to a harness racing track in Kentucky with them one weekend for basically an all day racing event and when I saw just how emotionally and financially absorbed these people were into horse racing, including my girlfriend, that was enough to end my relationship in relative short order. It really blew my mind how much money these people spent on that horse racing event including a pile of bets on every race but yet they were not well off, in fact I would categorize them as being very low middle class or borderline poor and yet they went to the race track every weekend and sometimes in the evenings during the week.

    I really like horses but professional horse racing and gambling on horse racing – I just don’t get it.

    • Yeah, I know of a family who goes to drag races regularly. They get a child to try to cadge extra money from an ex, supposedly for extra food or bring phantom friends. Let’s keep in mind their electricity was turned off over the summer though other utilities also have their day like internet service for the online charter school. I’m sure it’s the thrill of being at the races which would be the same as horses.

      Gambling of some kind cuts across all strata, and like booze can just be for entertainment or a thrill. I really don’t think you could or should try to legislate them away, it would take a much more mature culture than we will see in any of our lifetimes. The only successful ban would come a total lack of demand. A slow dwindling will mean the high fliers will be desperate to keep the money high. Looks like the desperation has started,

      I didn’t even know there’d been a triple crown last year. (If I have a buck or two I’ll get a scratch off and save time and expense over gate+parking+food) There is more thrill in a race, but I get more peeved at the collateral costs. Outside tuning in to the Derby for nostalgia I haven’t seen a race since high school. (my gambling urge was satisfied by using dice to kill orcs) But the addiction to reflected adrenaline of the race and the betting starts young and other forms of betting have drawn people away. I suspect the sport of kings needs more than just reforms for fair play (the crown should be taken away just like the black sox scandal, and the ones who let it slide fined) It also needs to make the thrill more convenient and affordable along with the thrills. Maybe VR recording to feel like you’re in the race? There just aren’t enough kings to sustain the old ways…

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