Justify failed drug test because of contaminated feed, California racing board says

HORSEPLAY: In this October 2015 file photo, Bob Baffert is interviewed at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky. Baffert's horse, Justify, tested positive for a banned substance which was ruled to have been caused by contaminated feed. Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader/Tribune News Service

LOS ANGELES — Justify, who dominated the equine world last year when he became the 13th winner of the Triple Crown, has thrust horse racing back into an unwelcome spotlight after it was reported that the colt failed a drug test following his victory in the Santa Anita Derby.

Justify tested positive for scopolamine, a compound commonly found in jimson weed, a wild-growing plant, which according to veterinarians has little to no effect on performance. Justify was not alone at Santa Anita, as a total of seven horses in five different barns all tested positive at the same time, indicating it was not some random case of a trainer seeking an edge.

In this case, the trainer would be Hall of Famer Bob Baffert.

The cases against Justify and the other six horses were dropped after the California Horse Racing Board determined that the positive tests were caused by simple feed contamination. The failed drug test was first reported by The New York Times. Technically, the case should be classified as a poisoning rather than a drugging because of how the drug was ingested.

The timing of the positive test and how it was handled has become the subject of much discussion in a sport that has had more than its share of scrutiny this year, including the death of 30 horses at Santa Anita and the race-day disqualification of a Kentucky Derby winner, the first time that has happened in 145 years.

Chuck Winner, who was the chairman of the CHRB at the time, on Thursday cited “overwhelming evidence that Justify, along with six other horses in four different barns at Santa Anita, ingested scopolamine from jimson weed which was present in the hay that had been delivered to the barns.”

“It would have been a complete miscarriage of justice for the CHRB to have taken action against Justify or Baffert, knowing full well that the horse was poisoned by an environmental contaminate and not injected with a substance,” Winner said.

Even if the process had moved at rocket speed and the seven horses had been found in violation, Justify would still not have been disqualified as the winner of the Santa Anita Derby or denied a spot in the Kentucky Derby.

The drug was originally classified in California as a “3b,” which if detected could lead to disqualification. But the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI), which sets industry standards including drug limits for horses and greyhounds, had reclassified the drug as a less serious “4c,” for which violations don’t result in disqualifications.

California automatically adopts all RCI rules unless the board votes otherwise. The CHRB website — because of a clerical oversight, according to Winner — had not updated the classification, and because the board hadn’t voted for a change, scopolamine was technically a 4c in the state.

“Scopolamine has some historic use in treating abdominal discomfort or colic,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. “Today it has minimal application in the horse.”

Scollay also said the drug is not a performance enhancer and the amount, 300 nanograms, while above the accepted limit, provides no more clues.

“You can not discern intent from concentration,” Scollay said.

Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the CHRB, said the drug can be used as a bronchodilator, but “the pharmalogical effect is nil.”

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