Horse racing under fire after 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify's failed drug test

For a horse racing industry contending with declining participation and mounting concerns about its safety standards, evidence that 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify failed a drug test days before his history-making run turned a moment of celebration into another instance of bad publicity.

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Justify, the 13th Triple Crown winner in the sport’s history, tested positive for banned substance scopolamine just days after he qualified for the Kentucky Derby, the New York Times reported. Rather than disqualifying Justify, the California Horse Racing Board allegedly delayed, and ultimately dismissed, its inquiry into the failed test, in a departure from its normal standards.

While both the CHRB and Justify’s renowned trainer, Bob Baffert, have denied wrongdoing, some pundits are citing the case as proof that horse racing’s system of state-by-state regulation is fundamentally flawed, hurting competition and putting animals at risk. Advocates of the Horseracing Integrity Act, a bipartisan Congressional bill that would regulate the sport at the federal level, argue that standardized anti-doping would improve its integrity at a time when fan attendance beyond the Triple Crown and Breeder's Cup continues to dwindle.

Horses “can be charged with an overage of a drug or use of an illegal drug in Arkansas and New York (racetracks) and have completely different punishments, so there’s no uniformity,” Valerie Pringle, a campaign manager for equine protection at the Humane Society, told FOX Business. “That’d be like the Redskins and the Raiders and the Patriots all having different rules. It just doesn’t work.”

Beyond the decline in attendance,  the signs of shrinking fan interest in the once-mainstream sport -- billed as the "sport of kings" -- is the number of racehorses foaled in North America declined from more than 44,000 in 1990 to less than 21,000 in 2019, according to the Jockey Club. Also, wagering at U.S. events regularly topped $16 billion annually in the early 2000s, but fell to roughly $11.2 billion in 2018, according to Equibase.

A wave of 29 horse deaths at the famous Santa Anita Park in 2019 led California Gov. Gavin Newsom to call on regulators to shutter the facility and submit to independent inspections by veterinarians. Misused drugs and medications are believed to be contributing factors.

CHRB CEO Rick Baedeker told KPBS in San Diego in August that while sagging revenue suggests the overall horse-racing industry is “on the decline,” improved regulations would help reassure the public that the sport is safe.

“The game is healthy — but it’s only going to stay healthy if ... the public is convinced that everything is being done that can be done to protect the race horse,” he said.

In the case of Justify, officials rejected the notion that regulators’ handling of the situation was evidence of foul play.

Baffert said he “unequivocally” rejects allegations that he knowingly gave Justify a banned substance, arguing that the failed test was “obvious environmental contamination” that is “a known problem in California.” In other words, Justify likely ingested the substance outside of his monitored intake.

Top CHRB medical official Rick Arthur said the amount of the banned substance was “miniscule” and that several other horses also tested positive. Based on his findings, he recommended that regulators drop the case.

"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,” the CHRB said in a statement.

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For critics, the Horseracing Integrity Act is one possible way to prevent similar scandals. The bill is under consideration in both congressional houses and has drawn bipartisan support.

“I think that it is going to drive some fans away, but what they have to understand is, there’s a fix, and the fix is this federal bill. The reason it has to be a federal bill is because it has to be in a position where it can trump all of the state racing commissions,” Pringle added.