At first it looks like a splashy yet simple story that Joe Drape wrote Wednesday for The New York Times. But really, it is more complicated than all that.
The headline was that 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify tested positive for an illegal drug after last year’s Santa Anita Derby. That he then should have been disqualified. And that he would not have had enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby to start his epic, five-week run. But Drape reported that testing procedure and regulatory red tape were used as excuses for the California Horse Racing Board to put off timely action – and that the board is deep in bed with the horsemen it regulates.
“Instead of the failed drug test causing a speedy disqualification, the California Horse Racing Board took more than a month to confirm the results,” Drape wrote. “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.”
Immediately, social media erupted. Justify’s Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert became the primary target. And that is where this starts to get complicated.
“I unequivocally reject any implication that scopolamine was ever intentionally administered to Justify or any of my horses,” Baffert said Thursday morning in a written statement sent out by his Kentucky lawyer.
Scopolamine. That is the drug in question, and yes, Baffert admitted that it was found in Justify’s bloodstream. But California’s chief racing veterinarian Dr. Rick Arthur told VSiN that this was a case of “poisoning, not a drugging,” and that it was accidental, probably the result of something Justify ate. “Generally it’s feed, but it can also be found in straw.”
Arthur then called out Drape for writing a story that he called “one-sided and incomplete. He had an agenda.”
That is a frequent criticism of Drape, a two-time Eclipse Award-winning turf writer, and of The New York Times. Drape was part of a team of writers that fashioned a lengthy report seven years ago on racing deaths. The biggest problem with that series of stories was the mixing of quarter-horse and thoroughbred statistics. As respected racing writer Andy Beyer put it at the time in The Washington Post, “Subtract the quarter-horse component from the study, and The Times might not have a carnage-laden, front-page story.”
It may not be fair to tar Drape’s latest story with that same seven-year-old brush of criticism. After all, he also wrote a book about American Pharoah’s run to the 2015 Triple Crown. But it is hard to forget the widespread feeling that The Times is anti-horse racing, pouncing on the sport’s worst news but only bothering a few times a year to cover races themselves.
Criticizing Drape and The Times, though, does not address the basics of the story itself, especially the drug in question. Type “scopolamine” into a search engine, and medical websites describe it as a drug used to treat nausea, vomiting, even motion sickness. Dig deeper and up pops a powerful YouTube video produced by Vice Media, a well-regarded group of journalists that produced a frightening 2012 documentary about the drug’s literal growth in Colombia. It was described by reporter Ryan Duffy as “the worst roofie you can ever imagine.” But that is for humans and in doses logarithmically larger than what has been found in horses.
Although he could not confirm Drape’s specifics on Justify’s drug sample, Arthur called it a trace amount. “It’s not that complicated an issue,” he said. “We’ve had this before. We found scopolamine in at least six horses in a five-week period (in April and May 2018). I’m 100 percent confident that the board made the right decision this time in accordance with CHRB regulation.”
Yet it was still a positive test. So how serious was this violation? Drape found out that the CHRB was in the process of reducing the penalty for the use of scopolamine, but only after Justify became the Kentucky Derby favorite. It rang the same sort of clunky note as the sudden decision in New York to allow breathing strips on horses’ noses in order to accommodate California Chrome’s bid for the 2014 Triple Crown.
But the Association of Racing Commissioners International, a group that often wags a finger of shame at the U.S. for allowing race-day medication, considers scopolamine a Class 4 drug. That is the second-lowest level that it ranks. Arthur said that even when the CHRB took a hard line on it in the ’90s, trainers whose horses had positive tests for it were fined but not suspended.
Drape said that scopolamine is considered a performance enhancer, but even that is debatable. “No trainer would ever administer scopolamine to a horse,” Baffert’s lawyer Craig Robertson told Drape in a letter. (Drape told ESPN on Thursday that he had not received that letter.) “It has a depressant effect and would do anything but enhance the performance of a horse.”
Who knows how all this will end? There will be calls to hang a Barry Bonds asterisk or a Lance Armstrong forfeit on Justify’s Triple Crown. And there will be renewed calls for the appointment of some grand panjandrum to make such decisions nationally while taking on the role of the genie who will cure everything that is wrong with horse racing.
But no matter what comes down, those tickets on Good Magic, Bravazo and Gronkowski in last year’s classics do not suddenly become cashable. I know; the bettor gets hosed again, right?
Drape’s story did reinforce the perils of self-governance, namely having horsemen on the CHRB. On the one hand it is vital to have knowledgeable board members. But it is impossible to balance that with inevitable conflicts of interest. It is no secret that the then-CHRB chairman Chuck Winner has an ownership stake in a horse trained by Baffert.
One important question now is whether Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) will use this story as an arrow in his quiver and continue to take aim on horse racing. But instead of banning it, as the extremists want, why not use this story to tighten some of the screws – or at least get rid of the loose ones who are on Newsom’s racing board?
Newsom could use his influence and push California to make the medication of horses – intentional, accidental or otherwise – completely transparent. Go beyond the tip-of-the-iceberg reporting of only Lasix and Bute. If a horse eats its, drinks it, sniffs it or gets shot in the butt with it, then it should be a matter of public record. Bettors will not know what half the drugs are, you say? Let that be the problem of bettors, who yesteryear learned what Lasix and Bute are all about.
I get that this will not make the cheaters go away. But looking the other way and not even trying to get this information into the open is worse. From every detail and reaction to this story, it appears that Justify’s 17-month-old secret – innocent or not – was purposely and legally maintained. That sort of thing is what has to change.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It appears more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Legendary comedian Shecky Greene discusses a lifetime of betting on races, something he still does every day in Las Vegas. Toronto media personality Jason Portuondo handicaps Saturday’s Woodbine Mile. There is also Twitter feedback, a discussion of the controversy over Justify’s positive drug test before his Triple Crown last year and a comment on the likelihood that Nevada will not offer Breeders’ Cup futures betting this fall. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google and Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts.