Horse racing’s latest black eye is likely to increase calls for oversight of the sport as Washington plans a congressional hearing into legislation that would nationalize regulation of racing.
The sport was shaken by a New York Times report released late Wednesday that Justify, the 2018 Triple Crown winner, tested positive for the chemical scopolamine after winning the Santa Anita Derby. According to the story, Justify could have been disqualified from running in the Kentucky Derby. The California Horse Racing Board eventually dropped the case after a closed-door hearing.
Coming on the heels of dozens of racehorse deaths this year at Santa Anita Park, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Kentucky, said Thursday that the news bolsters arguments for a national standard.
“It underscores the confusion that is generated by a system that is a patchwork of conflicting jurisdictions,” Barr said. “I don’t know the facts of this particular case, but the confusion itself is evidence of the need for our legislation.”
He said the story “showcases how confused the betting public is, how confused fans are about what the rules are in any given jurisdiction and it points to the need for national uniform medication rules.”
He said he’s talked with Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, the chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, and she plans a hearing on the legislation.
Barr’s Democratic co-sponsor, Rep. Paul Tonko of New York, suggested on Facebook and Twitter that the legislation would help clean up the sport.
“A painful blow for our sport of kings,” Tonko said of the story. “Nationwide drug testing standards are long overdue for horse racing. Anything less will keep putting horses, jockeys and the future of the sport at risk.”
He added that the legislation “will get it done. Congress needs to move it forward ASAP.”
Justify’s trainer, Bob Baffert, on Thursday denied drugging the horse, who later sold for a reported $60 million to global Thoroughbred breeding giant Coolmore and now stands at stud in Versailles.
“I unequivocally reject any implication that scopolamine was ever intentionally administered to Justify, or any of my horses,” Baffert said in a statement. “Justify is one of the finest horses I’ve had the privilege of training and by any standard is one of the greatest of all time. I am proud to stand by his record, and my own.”
Baffert blamed environmental contamination for a positive finding for the chemical, which is found in jimson weed. He also said he had no “input into, or influence on, the decisions made by the California Horse Racing Board.”
Kentucky racing officials were never informed of the finding. According to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, they did not know until Wednesday’s report. The commission had no comment.
Churchill Downs racetrack president Kevin Flanery issued a statement saying that the track where the Kentucky Derby is run also had no knowledge of the California test results.
“Until media reports surfaced Wednesday night, neither Churchill Downs nor the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission had knowledge of any potential positive tests that may have emanated from California in advance of the 2018 Kentucky Derby,” Flanery said. “We do know that all pre- and post-race tests for 2018 Kentucky Derby participants came back clean, including Justify. In advance of our race each year, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission conducts pre-race out-of-competition testing for every Kentucky Derby starter and all starters’ results were clean. After the race, the top finishers are tested for a myriad of banned substances and the results for all were clean.”
Dr. Mary Scollay, who was Kentucky’s equine medical director at the time, confirmed that the state wasn’t notified.
Scollay, who is now the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, said that a drug positive typically doesn’t become public knowledge until after stewards have issued a ruling on confirmed test results, which could take several weeks “or longer.”
And if there is an appeal of the stewards’ ruling, any official sanction is delayed until the case is adjudicated.
Scollay said that while scopolamine does act as a bronchodilator, “it wouldn’t be my go-to drug” as a performance enhancer.
“It can actually cause colic, which can be pretty severe,” she said.
While the international threshold for scopolamine in 60 nanograms in urine, Justify had 400 nanograms, according to the New York Times. But Scollay said she’s been unable to determine from published literature if that would have been significant.
Baffert’s attorney, W. Craig Robertson III, called it a “trace amount” that wouldn’t have had a “pharmacological effect on a thousand pound animal.”
Robertson commended the California authorities for their handling of the matter.
But the controversy has stirred animal welfare groups PETA and Animal Wellness Action to urge passage of Barr’s legislation.
Calling California’s handling a “nasty cover-up,” PETA called a complete overhaul.
“Drug testing should be conducted and overseen by impartial operators and not by industry players with a vested interest in looking the other way. 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,” said Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action, in a news release.
“House and Senate Commerce Committee Chairmen Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Roger Wicker (R-MS), should swiftly schedule a hearing on the legislation and 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.”
But Scollay pointed out that federal rules wouldn’t have changed the timeline in the Justify case.
“It wouldn’t relieve the legal obligation to provide due process,” she said. “There is a clear need for uniformity in testing, in regulation, in enforcement, all of it. But the industry has the potential to do that. ... In some areas, we already have uniformity, particularly with therapeutic medications. We all have the same thresholds and testing. Where we still see variability is in how those findings are addressed by regulatory authorities.
“We’re far better off than 20 years ago, but we need to do better.”