The Justify bombshell shows even more the need for national oversight of racing

New York Times racing writer Joe Drape dropped a bomb on horse racing, reporting that Justify, the winner of the 2018 Triple Crown, tested positive for a regulated substance in California not long before the Kentucky Derby but California racing regulators hushed it up.

Apparently, Justify tested positive for scopolamine, but the California Horse Racing Board kept it very quiet in the weeks leading up to the Derby, and eventually dismissed it in a closed door hearing, according to Drape. The chairman of the board has an interest in horses trained by Bob Baffert, Justify’s trainer, a legendary figure in racing who had broken the Triple Crown’s 37-year drought in 2015 with American Pharoah.

The predictable squawking and squirming started Thursday morning as Baffert strongly denied any insinuations about doping and blamed environmental contamination, since scopolamine is found in jimson weed, which gets in hay and feed. Churchill Downs said that Justify tested clean before and after the Kentucky Derby, and we assume the same is true for the Preakness and Belmont.

But no matter who’s in the right, the California Racing Board’s furtive handling of the situation looks a lot like a cover-up and comes when the racing industry is already besieged by troubles of its own doing: the increased deaths of racehorses in California and elsewhere, the confusing disqualification of Maximum Security in the Kentucky Derby, and a general feeling that the sport is neither humane nor honest. A 2018 Jockey Club report found that only 22 percent of the population has a positive view of racing, according to the Blood-Horse.

What is clear is that Congress should pass the federal Horse Racing Integrity Act, and the sooner the better. The bill is sponsored by Kentucky Republican Rep. Andy Barr and Rep. Paul Tonka, a Democrat from New York, two men who represent the horse hubs of Lexington and Saratoga Springs, two places that depend not just on horse racing, but on breeding, raising and training them too. The bill would create a private agency that would be in charge of anti-doping efforts from every racing state with standard regulations, rather than the hodgepodge of state rules that exist now. Thie agency would be overseen by the Federal Trade Commission. This group would probably have fewer conflicts than current racing commissions, where board members frequently do business with the people they oversee. The bill would also ban race day medications, which would put it in line with racing rules in the rest of the world. Barr said Thursday that the confusion over Justify’s case would bolster the legislation.

The proposed bill has gone from pariah status to a movement supported by Keeneland, the Jockey Club, numerous groups and people, most recently, billionaire B. Wayne Hughes, the owner of Spendthrift Farm in Lexington. Holdouts such as Churchill Downs are believed to have kept Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from signing on. The country’s two largest horsemen’s groups, the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, are also opposed because of the raceday medication rule.

If the insular racing industry thinks this will just go away, they might want to think again. Consider this from Martin Irby, director of Animal Wellness Action this morning:

“Drug testing should be conducted and overseen by impartial operators and not by industry players with a vested interest in looking the other way,” he said in a press release. “The Horseracing Integrity Act would put the independent U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in the saddle and allow it to clean up a sport addicted to doping that’s caused countless horse deaths.”

Irby urged Congress to call hearings on the proposed bill AND start an investigative hearing to “investigate the corruption in horse racing for the well-being and protection of our iconic American equines, and to preserve what little integrity remains within the sport.”

“What little integrity remains.” It’s a shame these human shenanigans may have tarnished the stunning accomplishments of that strapping chestnut colt and his ilk. People love to rally around Triple Crown winners like Justify, provided those wins are clean. That’s why if racing has any sense of self preservation, they should support and pass the Horse Racing Integrity Act. They need to prove they’re worthy of the trust of the public and the horses who work so hard for them.

Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.