LOS ANGELES (AP) — Stewards at Santa Anita listened to hours of testimony Thursday (Oct 29) on Triple Crown winner Justify’s post-race drug test after the 2018 Santa Anita Derby, with attorneys for the horse’s connections arguing that the California Horse Racing Board has no authority or basis to reopen the closed matter.
The CHRB has filed two complaints seeking the disqualifications of Justify and Hoppertunity from their victories in 2018. The complaints also seek the redistribution of purse money from their races.
Justify won the Santa Anita Derby and went on to sweep the Triple Crown and retired undefeated. The colt was trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith, both Hall of Famers. Hoppertunity won the Tokyo City Cup at Santa Anita one day after Justify’s victory. Baffert also trained that colt.
Both horses had scopolamine in their post-race tests. The CHRB did not rule positives in either case based on the lab results. Instead, the racing board followed the recommendation of its equine medical director, Dr Rick Arthur, that the scopolamine in the samples were caused by environmental contamination.
Chuck Winner, chairman of the CHRB from 2014-19, said in a declaration read during the hearing that the board voted unanimously to accept the recommendation of Arthur and then-CHRB executive director Rick Baedeker that no action be taken against Justify.
“The entire case was dismissed and I’m actually pretty shocked the state is arguing otherwise,” Arthur said during his video testimony.
The cases of Justify and Hoppertunity were heard at the same time during the four-hour video hearing in front of stewards John Herbuveaux, Ron Church and Kim Sawyer.
Herbuveaux advised the attorneys not to expect a decision soon. Once a decision is handed down, there is a 72-hour window to appeal.
Baffert has said that neither horse was administered scopolamine, which is sometimes used to treat mild colic and spasms. It can also show up as a result of environmental contamination when horses eat hay that contains jimsonweed, which grows wild in California.
“This was a case of innocent environmental contamination of hay,” Craig Robertson, Baffert’s attorney, said. “It was not a case of intentional administration of any drug or medication. The trace levels of scopolamine that resulted from this had no effect on the performance of these horses and no effect on the races.”
The CHRB decided in a secret, closed-door session of its board in August 2018 to dismiss the matter against Justify and Baffert. The colt’s positive result didn’t become public until September 2019, when it was revealed in a New York Times story.
“I warned them this was not going to stay a secret at the time, but that was their decision, not mine,” Arthur said of the CHRB during his witness testimony.
Attorney Robert Petersen, representing the CHRB, argued in his closing that there is no statue of limitations in either case.
“There’s never been a full adjudication on the merits of this issue,” he said. “In August 2018, there was no witness testimony.”
Under California rules in place at the time, a failed test for scopolamine would have required disqualification and the redistribution of purse money. The CHRB later lowered the penalty from the tougher 3b classification at the time of the horses’ positives to a 4c that includes a minimum fine of $1,000 and no disqualification.
Petersen said the penalty was lowered on January 2, 2019.
Robertson objected, saying, “When these races were run in April 2018, it was a 4c substance since California says we follow the ARCI.”
The Association of Racing Commissioners International’s model rules of racing and wagering are recognized worldwide as a standard for independent and impartial regulation of the sport.
“The only argument they have is California was delayed in getting their regulations consistent with the ARCI,” Robertson said, adding that a delay doesn’t change the fact that the CHRB maintains it follows ARCI standards.
Trainer Mick Ruis filed a lawsuit last January claiming the CHRB failed to follow through on its regulatory duties when no action was taken against Justify following the lab’s post-race finding. Ruis trained Bolt d’Oro, runner-up to Justify in the Santa Anita Derby. He is seeking to have Justify disqualified and the purse money redistributed. Justify earned US$600,000; Bolt d’Oro earned $200,000.
Last July, attorneys for Ruis said that as part of a preliminary agreement to settle his lawsuit, the CHRB had agreed to file a complaint against the connections of Justify and conduct the hearing that occurred Thursday.
Amanda Groves, attorney for Smith and Justify’s owners WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing, asserted that Ruis filed his lawsuit too late and failed to follow procedure in going before the stewards to first complain before going to the CHRB.
Groves contended that “somebody from the CHRB” shared the results of Justify’s drug test with the media. “That is a due process violation,” she said.
In his closing argument, Robertson said the case is important to the racing industry as a whole because revisiting race results long after the fact sets what he called “a dangerous precedent.”
“We’re going to kill the sport if we don’t stop cases like this from going forward,” Robertson told the stewards.