In Defense of Justify, Bob Baffert Lets Others Do the Talking for a Change
For nearly 20 years, Bob Baffert has been the face of American thoroughbred racing, a trainer who took one fast horse after another to the Triple Crown races, winning many of them. His white hair has made him distinctive, and his silver tongue has made him memorable.
At ease in front of microphones, he has filled up reporters’ notebooks on mornings at the track, where he famously shows up in the hour from 8 to 9 — long after his rivals, who keep to a sunup schedule.
On Thursday, however, after The New York Times reported that Justify, the 2018 Triple Crown winner trained by Baffert, had failed a drug test shortly before the Kentucky Derby, Baffert let his lawyer do most of the talking.
In a letter to The Times released on social media, Baffert’s attorney, W. Craig Robertson III, said that Justify’s positive test for the banned substance scopolamine had been the result of “environmental contamination” and commended the California Horse Racing Board’s handling of the case. As reported by The Times, the board apparently did not follow its own procedures and ultimately closed the investigation without ever disclosing the positive test result to the public.
Scopolamine can occur naturally in jimson weed, which occasionally has been found in horse feed or bedding materials. However, Robertson offered no evidence of contamination; nor did California regulators when offered the opportunity to respond to The Times before the publication of the article. According to experts, the drug can act as a bronchodilator to clear airways and optimize heart rates, making horses more efficient.
The quantity of the drug found in Justify suggested it was not the result of feed or bedding contamination and was intended to enhance performance, according to Dr. Rick Sams, who ran the drug lab for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission from 2011 to 2018.
In recent weeks Baffert has declined multiple requests for an interview with The Times. The Hall of Fame trainer did so again Thursday, after the article was published.
“The C.H.R.B. did right by all parties, including the industry,” Robertson said in the letter, adding, “Horse racing is a tremendous sport, and Mr. Baffert conducts himself with honesty, class and character.”
The revelation of Justify’s failed test comes as horse racing is under siege. The industry has been shrinking financially and losing its hold on general sports fans for decades. Industry leaders longed for an equine superstar that could transcend the sport during the decades when a series of supposed super-horses came up short in their attempts to become the first the Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Then in 2015, under Baffert’s guidance, American Pharoah pulled off the feat.
As that breakthrough approached, Baffert was often sentimental and philosophical about his own rise from a third-rate jockey on the bush tracks of Arizona to one of the world’s pre-eminent trainers.
Baffert spoke about how a severe heart attack in Dubai had made him face his own mortality. He said he was hurt by an unflattering 2013 report by California regulators after seven horses had died in his care. The report said that Baffert had been giving every horse in his barn a thyroid hormone without checking to see if any of them had thyroid problems.
Baffert also spoke about how a narrow loss in the 2012 Derby, by a horse named after his son Bode, had made him seek inner peace.
As Justify followed in American Pharoah’s footsteps, horse racing appeared to have an even stronger chance at stirring back to life. But after 30 racehorses died from injuries at Santa Anita Park in California over the winter and spring, the industry found itself back on the defensive. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office began an investigation, and California lawmakers and animal rights activists called for more regulation and transparency, especially when it came to drugs and horse safety.
Baffert, 66, with his five Kentucky Derby winners and two Triple Crown champions, assumed a role as the sport’s affable statesman. In May, in the wake of the Santa Anita deaths, he was the star attraction in support of the California horse racing industry, traveling to the State Capitol in Sacramento to defend his sport before lawmakers.
Baffert told them that the deaths had increased awareness among his colleagues.
“I think the trainers are going to do a better job of policing themselves,” he said.
On Thursday, however, others were forced to defend the sport because of an unflattering narrative in which Baffert was a central character.
In a statement, Kevin Flanery, the president of Churchill Downs, the host of the Derby, said neither the track nor the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission had known about the failed drug test before The Times article.
“We do know that all pre- and post-race tests for 2018 Kentucky Derby participants came back clean, including Justify,” the statement said.
To qualify for the Kentucky Derby, Justify needed to finish first or second in the Santa Anita Derby in April 2018. He won, but a rule on the books at the time would have required that he be disqualified by a positive drug test, forfeiting both the prize money and entry into the Derby, the first Triple Crown race.
Test results, emails and internal memos in the Justify case show that California regulators did not notify Baffert for nearly three weeks that his Derby favorite had tested positive for scopolamine. The board then pursued an investigation to figure out if Justify might have unintentionally ingested the banned substance.
Four months later — and more than two months after Baffert and the horse’s owners celebrated their Triple Crown victory in New York — the California board disposed of the inquiry altogether during a closed-door executive session.
The board’s chairman, Chuck Winner, has owned horses that Baffert trained. Winner said recently he had not recused himself from the inquiry into Justify and added that the racing board’s general counsel had not advised him to do so.
W. Elliott Walden, chief executive and racing manager of WinStar Farm, part of Justify’s ownership group, told the industry publication Blood Horse that he knew about the positive test in April 2018. He said he had turned the issue over to his lawyers and then never heard from regulators.
“It is a shame for Bob’s reputation, Justify’s reputation, and our reputation,” Walden told the publication.