Triple Crown winning trainer denies allegations of drugging horse

Documents allegedly show the horse, Justify, tested positive for a banned substance just weeks before the 2018 Kentucky Derby, according to the New York Times.

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By Doha Madani

Justify, the colt who in 2018 became one of only 13 horses to win the Triple Crown, reportedly failed a drug test that should have disqualified him from racing's most revered event, according to a New York Times report Wednesday.

Documents obtained by the Times allegedly show that Justify tested positive for a banned substance called scopolamine just weeks before the 2018 Kentucky Derby, the first of three races needed to earn the Triple Crown title. Rather than disqualifying the colt or its trainer, Bob Baffert, the California Horse Racing Board took more than a month to confirm the test, according to the Times.

"Then, instead of filing a public complaint as it usually does, the board made a series of decisions behind closed doors as it moved to drop the case and lighten the penalty for any horse found to have the banned substance that Justify tested positive for in its system," the Times report said.

Rick Baedeker, the executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, told the Times there was "no way that we could have come up with an investigative report prior to the Kentucky Derby."

According to Baedeker's statement, the scopolamine is often found in jimson weed, which is grown wildly and could end up in a horse's feed.

"We take seriously the integrity of horse racing in California and are committed to implementing the highest standards of safety and accountability for all horses, jockeys and participants," Baedeker said in a statement to NBC News.

The board's former chairman, Chuck Winner, whose second term ended in July, said in a statement to NBC News Thursday that the board made the right decision in "what was clearly a case of environmental contamination that has been badly mischaracterized."

Winner said that investigations revealed "overwhelming evidence" that Justify and six other horses accidentally ingested the scopolamine from jimson weed present in hay at four different barns in Santa Anita.

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"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.

The Triple Crown is a title awarded to horses who win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in a single season. Before Justify's crown win last year, American Pharoah was the first horse to earn the coveted title in 37 years.

Baffert worked with both Justify and American Pharoah, making him the second trainer in history to produce two Triple Crown horses.

Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of PETA, said in a statement that the California Horse Racing Board's failure to investigate Justify's drug test is a "nasty cover-up" and called for Justify to be disqualified from the Triple Crown victory. Guillermo also accused Baffert of drugging Justify in order to win.

"Even at the highest levels, horseracing is crooked to the core and must be overhauled," Guillermo said.

Baffert vehemently denied the accusation that he intentionally administered scopolamine to Justify, or any of his horses, in a statement Thursday.

"Following the Santa Anita Derby, Justify raced in three different jurisdictions during his Triple Crown run — Kentucky, Maryland and New York," Baffert said. "He passed all drug tests in those jurisdictions."

Baffert's attorney, W. Craig Robertson III, issued a letter to the Times, seen by NBC News, that called the report on Justify's drug test "short on facts" and sensationalist. Robertson said in his letter that the amount of scopolamine in Justify's system was "minuscule."

"You report an alleged finding of 300 nanograms," Robertson said in his letter to the Times. "What you fail to inform the reader is that one nanogram is a billionth of a gram."

Robertson also denied that there is any scientific evidence to show that the banned substance improves the performance of a race horse, as it has a depressant effect. The attorney called the idea that a trainer would intentionally administer the substance "defies logic and common sense."

Justify's journey to the Triple Crown drew particular interest for racing fans as the colt approached the racing trifecta with an undefeated season. The only other Triple Crown horse to win the title undefeated was Seattle Slew in 1977.

Following a Triple Crown win, horse owners typically sell the breeding rights to the horse for outrageous sums of money. Justify's breeding rights were reportedly sold for an estimated $75 million, according to ESPN in 2018.

Justify was purchased for only $500,000, according to the Associated Press.

CORRECTION (Sept. 13, 2019, 10:13 a.m. ET) A previous version of this article misstated who trainer Bob Baffert’s attorney is. It is W. Craig Robertson III, not Joe Drape.