Billy Reed: Justify report puts horse racing in ‘serious’ trouble

Billy Reed: Justify report puts horse racing in ‘serious’ trouble
Billy Reed

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) – I’m sure you are aware of the latest scandal involving a Triple Crown winner trained by Bob Baffert, and are concerned that even the FBI might not be able to figure it out.

I’m talking, of course, about Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Kentucky early last year. He came to support Andy Barr for Congress, but took a side trip to see American Pharoah, who in 2015 became the first thoroughbred since Affirmed in 1978 to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes.

Pence later told friends that American Pharoah had bitten him so hard he almost passed out, and even offered to show off a bruise that was the trophy of his trip to Ashford Stud, the breeding farm that got Pharoah after he was syndicated for stud duty for $60 million.

However, there were no witnesses to Pence’s story and nobody who was around him that day can remember him talking about being bitten. In fact, Pence’s story is at odds with the widespread perception that Pharoah is remarkably docile for a breeding stallion.

OK, I’ll stop kidding around here.

The Pence story is out there, for anybody who cares, but the one that really has the racing world jabbering is the one by New York Times writer Joe Drape that claims Justify should be been disqualified for his 2018 Triple Crown triumph because of a positive test for an illegal medication a month before the Kentucky Derby.

Although some in the industry virtually believe that Drape is a secret agent for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) organization, which has dogged the sport for years, his reporting in this case has not been seriously challenged.

Then again, the lawyers haven’t gotten too deeply into it so far, and it is shaping up as possibly the most damning case in the sport’s history. Already some pious pundits are reading horse racing its last rites.

Baffert denies ever giving anything illegal to Justify. But he still could be held responsible under the rules of racing, despite the fact that the illegal medication (scopolamine) also can be ingested from hay and feed. It is illegal for racing purposes because it clears a horse’s airways and optimizes his heart rate, enabling him to run better than normal.

However, Baffert really isn’t the big issue. It’s how the California State Racing Board refused to take action on the positive report and, instead, concocted a cover-up that allowed Justify – should he be now call him Justifraud? – to sweep through the Triple Crown.

The timeline is important:

Saturday, April 7 (one day less than a month before the Kentucky Derby) – Justify gallops to an impressive win in the Santa Anita Derby that makes him the Kentucky Derby favorite in the hearts and minds of many handicappers. After the race, he goes to the detention barn to give a routine blood test.

Wednesday, April 10 (25 days before the Kentucky Derby) – The samples from Justify and 33 other horses from the Santa Anita Derby card are delivered to the state laboratory at UC-Davis.

Thursday, April 18 (17 days before the Kentucky Derby) – The lab sends notice of Justify’s positive test to the Santa Anita stewards and the California State Racing board.

Saturday, April 20 (two weeks before the Kentucky Derby) – In an e-mail, Dr. Rick Arthur, the board’s equine medical director, informs the members that the Justify positive will be “handled differently” than a normal positive. Everyone knows that board chairman Chuck Winner is one of Baffert’s clients.

Friday, April 26 (eight days before the Kentucky Derby) – Baffert is informed of the positive test and immediately requests a second test, which trainers usually do in such cases.

Wednesday, May 1 (three days before the Kentucky Derby) – A portion of the Justify positive is sent to a different lab.

Saturday, May 4 – Justify defies rain and cold to win the Kentucky Derby, becoming the first horse to do so while still unbeaten since Seattle Slew in 1977.

Wednesday, May 8 (four days after the Kentucky Derby) – The second lab affirms the finding of the first lab. Rick Baedeker, the board’s executive board, tells the members that the “CHRB investigative unit will issue a complaint and a hearing will be scheduled.”

But no complaint was ever issued and no hearing ever held.

Instead, on Aug. 23, more than two months after Justify had completed his tour de force in the Triple Crown, the board voted privately not to pursue the case and it was closed.

After Drape’s story broke last week, the official CHRB line was that since the scopolamine easily could have been ingested from another source, and that the board didn’t have time to conduct the necessary investigation before the Kentucky Derby.

But that’s balderdash.

In 1968, when Dancer’s Image became the first Kentucky Derby winner to be disqualified for having an illegal medication detected in his post-race tests, the testing lab used by Churchill Downs was located in Louisville, and it informed the stewards about the positive test on Sunday night following the Derby.

But now most racing jurisdictions, including California and Kentucky, take their sweet time about getting test results from even the biggest and most important races.

When I worked in the Kentucky Commission office for a few months in 2004-2005, I was astounded to learn that Kentucky sent its samples to Nebraska for testing and usually didn’t get the results until 10 days or so after they were sent.

This is unacceptable, but can be easily fixed.

But if Drape’s story about Justify holds up, and there’s no reason yet to expect it won’t, it will tarnish racing’s image and reputation far more than this year’s Kentucky Derby, when Maximum Security became the second winner to be disqualified.

In this year’s case, no medications or tests were involved. It was a simple matter of whether Luis Saez, the jockey on Maximum Security, was guilty of losing control of his horse in the stretch, allowing him to compromise the chances of at least three others.

After more than 20 minutes of interviewing jockeys and watching repeated TV reruns of the incident from various angles and in slow-motion, the three stewards announced that Maximum Security was disqualified, which gave the official victory to second-place Country House.

It was a judgement call, sure, but that’s why the stewards are known as “judges” in the racing world. Like the umpires in baseball, they are supposed to “call ‘em as they see ‘em,” and not be concerned with what the media, the betting public, or anybody else thinks of them or their decisions.

But the Justify case involved a cover-up by the state racing board, the group charged with overseeing the sport’s health and honesty. Already under siege because of the 26 horses who have died on the track at Santa Anita since December, the board’s next big responsibility will be overseeing the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 4 at Santa Anita.

But it says here that California Gov. Gavin Newsom should clean house. Right now. The board has lost its credibility. It has no integrity. It should have nothing to do with a Breeders’ Cup that, because of the horse deaths, will be the most scrutinized in the event’s 35-year-history.

It won’t be as hard as it sounds. Being a racing commissioner isn’t as taxing as, say, being a brain surgeon, and California has a lot of honest people to fill the board and administrative slots. Just do it.

But a word of caution: Don’t put anybody on the board who has a business relationship with an active jockey or trainer. The relationship between current board chair Winner and Baffert probably is on the up-and-up, but the optics stink. Racing must learn that even the possibility of a conflict of interest should always be avoided.

Now I hope somebody tells Vice President Pence that I’m ready to see his bruise, even if it’s a fake bruise, because I need a laugh to keep my mind off thoroughbred racing’s very serious – and very real - problems.

Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter and regular contributor of sports columns to WAVE3.com. Contact him at billyreedcolumns@gmail.com.

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