Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has denied giving Justify a banned substance, following Wednesday’s report that the Triple Crown-winning horse failed a drug test a month before the 2018 Kentucky Derby.
The New York Times reported that Justify tested positive for scopolamine after winning the Santa Anita Derby — and qualifying for the Kentucky Derby in the process — on April 7, 2018. Scopolamine is a banned substance that can enhance performance, according to the Times, and the failed test should have led to Justify losing his Kentucky Derby entry.
Baffert said in a statement Thursday that Justify could have ingested trace amounts of the drug through feed grown in California.
“I unequivocally reject any implication that Scopolamine was ever intentionally administered to Justify, or any of my horses,” Baffert said. “Test results indicating trace amounts of the drug were undoubtedly the result of environmental contamination caused by the presence of Jimson Weed in feed, 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 was referring to Times reporting that the California board diverted from its normal course of action following Justify’s failed test. According to the Times, California regulators waited until April 26, nine days before the Kentucky Derby, to inform Baffert, who requested a second sample be tested by an independent lab. Those results were confirmed on May 8 — three days after Justify won the Kentucky Derby.
Rather than filing a complaint and holding a hearing, nothing happened until Aug. 23, four months after the failed test and two months after Justify had completed his Triple Crown run by winning the Belmont Stakes.
The board’s executive director, Rick Baedeker, took the unprecedented path of presenting the case directly to the board’s commissioners, who voted unanimously to drop the case, according to the Times.
An attorney who said he represents Baffert wrote a letter to the newspaper challenging its reporting. Along with issuing similar denials that Baffert gave, W. Craig Robertson III called the article “sensationalism” and noted the minuscule levels at which Justify tested positive.
Baffert called on the relevant testing agencies in Kentucky, Maryland and New York — the states of the three Triple Crown races — to release the horse’s test results.
On Thursday, Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery said in a statement that neither the racetrack nor the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission was aware of any possible positive test until Wednesday’s report. Flanery added that all horses had clean drug tests before that year’s Kentucky Derby and that top finishers passed testing after the race.
In Justify’s case, the California board reportedly decided that the test results could have come from contaminated food. However, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s former drug lab chief, Rick Sams, told the Times that the amount of scopolamine in Justify’s system suggested it “has to come from intentional intervention.”
In addition, the California board’s medical director said of scopolamine in 2016 that the chance of “getting a positive from environmental contamination is rather low.”
Scopolamine can help clear a horse’s airway and optimize its heart rate to make it more efficient, Sams told the Times.
Two months after dismissing the Justify case, the California board changed the penalty for a failed scopolamine test from a disqualification to a fine and a possible suspension.
“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.
Baffert also praised Justify while defending both his and the horse’s reputations.
“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 in his statement. “I am proud to stand by his record, and my own.”