The story behind Justify’s positive drug test: A misleading bombshell scoop, a damning lack of transparency and another unforced error by racing officials
In the first week of April in 2018, trucks from a company named Citrus Feed made deliveries to horse barns at Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia, California. Citrus Feed is one of three suppliers that service most of the Southern California racing circuit. It is a family-owned company that was started 65 years ago by Don Bell and is now operated by Don’s son, Larry Bell; the business has roots to 1924, when Robert Oscar Bell, Larry’s grandfather, moved from Tennessee and opened a feed store in La Verne, 30 miles east of Los Angeles and began selling feed during the local county fair’s horse races.
That week, as in every week of the racing season, Citrus Feed dropped off a feed mix that included wheat, barley, corn and grain, which horses eat from large rubber tubs; bales of hay, including alfalfa, timothy and other plants, which hang outside horses’ stalls and which the horses snack on during the day; and straw, which is mixed with wood shavings. Horses sleep on the straw mixture, but many of them also eat it. This is an important detail.
One of Citrus Feed’s clients that week at Santa Anita was (and remains) Bob Baffert, the white-haired, shades-wearing trainer, whose horse, American Pharoah, had in 2015 become the first in 37 years to win the thoroughbred Triple Crown. Baffert’s is the most recognizable face in the sport and he is also one of the few trainers who generates genuine animus, in addition to adulation. Citrus Feed deposited feed and bedding at Baffert’s two barns, which sit just inside the stable gate at Santa Anita, partially shaded by tall trees. In one of Baffert’s stalls was a giant three-year-old chestnut colt named Justify, who was not only striking – “The type of horse that painters paint and sculptors cast,” I would write, a little floridly, two months later, after Justify had become famous – but also fast, which is not always the case. Racing is full of slow Adonises and fast Mr. Beans.
However, at that time, Justify had run just two low-level races. He was entered in that weekend’s Santa Anita Derby and needed a strong performance to earn enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Justify won by three lengths. Four weeks later he became the first horse in 136 years to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a two-year-old. On the second weekend in June, he won the Belmont Stakes to become the 13th Triple Crown winner and Baffert’s second in four years. Justify was praised not just for winning the Triple Crown but for completing an unbeaten, six-race stint in just 112 days. That also turned out to be the duration of Justify’s career. He was retired in July and his breeding rights were sold for $60 million, believed to be the most in history. (Editor’s note: NBC broadcasts all three Triple Crown races.)
It was a remarkable chapter in racing history, and also a blur. Justify disappeared with his singular legacy intact.
That remained true for 459 days, until the late afternoon of Sept. 11, when The New York Times published a story headlined: “Justify Failed a Drug Test Before Winning the Triple Crown.” The nearly 2,000-word story, citing documents reviewed by the Times, asserted that Justify had failed a drug test conducted after his victory in the Santa Anita Derby and thus should not have accumulated the needed points to compete in the Kentucky Derby and should never have been given the opportunity to win the Triple Crown. Also, the Times detailed foot-dragging on the part of the California Horse Racing Board, strongly suggesting that the positive test had been covered up and, more strongly suggesting that Baffert had intentionally drugged Justify. The CHRB maintains that the case was simply dismissed and defended its process. The story was a bombshell.
Two weeks past the publication of the Times story, the central news hook of the piece remains true: Justify failed a drug test after the 2018 Santa Anita Derby. Levels of the drug scopolamine exceeding the allowed limit were found in a post-race urine sample collected after the Santa Anita Derby. Likewise, there remain questions about some of the CHRB’s actions in dealing with the test result. However, the powerful insinuation – that Baffert intentionally drugged a horse who went on to win the Triple Crown with a performance-enhancing substance – buckles under rigorous scrutiny.
That insinuation was put forth in the following two paragraphs:
Dr. Rick Sams, who ran the drug lab for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission from 2011 to 2018, said scopolamine can act as a bronchodilator to clear a horse’s airway and optimize a horse’s heart rate, making the horse more efficient. He said the amount of scopolamine found in Justify — 300 nanograms per milliliter — was excessive, and suggested the drug was intended to enhance performance.
“I think it has to come from intentional intervention,” he said.
The Times seemed to have taken down Baffert, and by extension Justify, on the basis of one source’s evaluation.
In the course of reporting this story, I interviewed eight equine medical professionals (a combination of veterinarians, pharmacologists and chemists, some with a combination of those degrees; the more the better in a complex area). Sams, for instance, is a Ph.D with a long – and respected – history of overseeing drug-testing programs, but not a veterinarian. Six of my eight sources spoke on the record. One spoke anonymously because of professional entanglements. Only one has a direct connection to Baffert – a vet who treated his horses – and I am not publishing his quotes. None of the eight supported Sams’ interpretation of the data, excepting one narrow, qualified suggestion from one source. It is not clear if Sams possessed all data before he was interviewed. Sams did not respond to three text messages and a voice mail left seeking his participation in this story.
Let’s start here: According to Rick Arthur, a veterinarian who serves as the medical director for the CHRB, test results from the first weekend in April of 2018 showed that not only Justify, but three additional horses from two additional trainers, also tested positive for scopolamine, but apparently below the legal limit of 75 nanograms/milliliter. (“One was close, [to being above 75 ng/ml],” said Arthur.)Arthur would not confirm that Justify’s level was 300 ng/ml, but NBC Sports independently confirmed that number. Arthur says the CHRB then widened its sample base to include approximately two more weeks of races and discovered three additional horses who had been found to have scopolamine in their urine from two more trainers. The total: Seven horses, five trainers. (It should be noted that California tests an average of two horses per race, three in most major stakes, so the vast majority of horses are not tested). Arthur has also provided this information to other media who requested it.
This was a familiar pattern to CHRB officials. In 1994, horses from four trainers tested positive for scopolamine above the permitted threshold. The four were ultimately absolved of blame (they were fined and their horses disqualified from purse money) and it was presumed that the cause of positive tests was “environmental contamination.” Most likely they had eaten a wild plant that contained scopolamine. The overwhelmingly likely culprit is called jimson weed, an invasive, foul-smelling plant with pinwheel flowers that grows aggressively among the plants harvested for horses’ feed and bedding and often inadvertently becomes part of the product. It is believed to have been brought to North America by the Jamestown settlers, who used it both for its pharmacological and psychotropic qualities; scopolamine is most commonly seen as an over-the-counter medication for motion sickness in humans, although it is used off label to, um, party.
Scopolamine has been banned at a specified level in horses since the late 1980s or early 1990s, according to Steve Barker, a Ph.D chemist and neurochemist who ran the Louisiana state testing laboratory form 1987-2016. Louisiana was the first racing jurisdiction to adopt a threshold for scopolamine. Barker says: “Scopolamine was put on the list back when testing became more sensitive and we put a lot of drugs on the list because we could find them for the first time. The thinking on scopolamine was that it can affect heart rate, so that could be performance enhancing. But it also sedates, which is negatively performance-enhancing.”
Cindy Cole is an equine clinical pharmacologist, veterinarian and director of the racing laboratory and associate professor at the University of Florida. Her varied training makes her especially qualified to judge a case like this one, and she also worked in the laboratory at the University of California-Davis from 1999-2005 and saw many samples containing scopolamine. She explains scopolamine’s presence on the list in a different and simpler way than Barker: “We don’t feel we should have to prove a drug has performance altering potential, but rather we do not allow drugs on board (i.e. permitted) unless there is a legitimate use for them. So we do not test for antibiotics [because there is a legitimate use for them].” Hence: While the public might immediately jump from “banned”, to “PED,” that is sometimes a flawed assumption.
Back to jimson weed. Larry Bell, the Citrus Feed owner: “It’s a hearty plant, almost impossible to get rid of. I’ve spent a lot of time studying it. I’ve got pictures: Plow a field, the first thing that comes up is jimson weed. Burn a field, first thing that comes up is jimson weed.” The jimson weed plants are small in number, among thousands of acres of farmland, but, says Bell, almost impossible to eliminate from harvests. “You would have to inspect every inch of the field, on foot,” says Bell. Hence, his supplies sometimes unavoidably contain jimson weed.
For Arthur and CHRB, there were two decisive points: First, multiple horses from multiple barns. This is called a cluster. In a 2014 paper forThe Veterinary Journal,four authors wrote, “If…. there is more than one horse and/or trainer involved in scopolamine findings (as is often the case in thoroughbred racing) then the probability that event is an innocent environmental contamination becomes overwhelming.” Also: While Justify’s (and the other horses’) urine sample contained only scopolamine, their blood samples also contained atropine. Both are found in jimson weed, but, obviously, both would not be found in a syringe full of scopolamine.
Lastly, as part of its investigation CHRB did a sweep of barns and found no jimson weed. This was not surprising; jimson weed is hearty and potent, but not plentiful. Suppliers can go months between contaminated shipments. However, according to Arthur and Bell, investigators searched discarded straw piles in the Santa Anita parking lot and found a jimson weed seed pod. “About the size of a golf ball, crushed flat, full of seeds,” says Bell. Worth remembering, from a few hundred words up the page: Horses eat straw.
Interpretations of all this, from experts:
Cindy Cole, the Florida-based vet and pharmacologist who formerly worked in the California lab: “I saw a reference from Dr. Rick Sams indicating that it would be a bronchodilator, and I don’t know where he’s getting that from,” said Cole. “I don’t know of any evidence that suggests it would be a good bronchodilator. That could certainly be a side effect in this class of drugs, but you would be far more likely to cause colic by slowing down the gut than to get good dilation.” (Colic can be fatal in horses).
Like Arthur, Cole pointed to the presence of atropine and to the cluster. “Put it this way, if [Justify] was the only one, and there wasn’t atropine, it might give me pause,” Cole said. “Is it possible that somebody” – [five somebodies, in this case] – “gave a horse a little scopolamine and a little atropine? It’s always possible, but again, why? And it’s much more consistent with environmental contamination.”
Steve Barker, the Louisiana chemist quoted above, has training and professional experience similar to Sams’s. “The best way to tell if someone has intentionally administered scopolamine is to check for other compounds, like atropine,” said Barker, “which mean it’s obviously environmental contamination.”
However, how to explain that Justify’s level of 300 ng/ml was four times the allowable limit? Barker, who set the 75 ng/ml Louisiana threshold that other states adopted, says that Justify’s level is not automatically problematic. “Concentration in the urine can be affected by other variables,” says Barker. “If Justify was dehydrated, his 75 or below could register as 300 or higher.”
Thomas Tobin, a veterinarian and Ph.D pharmacologist in the Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky and considered one of the pioneers of modern equine drug testing (also a co-author of the jimson weed study cited above), was presented the blood and cluster data and said this about the 300 ng/ml level: “Three hundred is a little on high side, but with these pharmaceuticals, concentration in the urine can be quite variable depending on the PH of the urine.” Moreover, Tobin, like others, reverted back to the cluster and the atropine as far more significant than the level. “This is consistent with a finding of environmental contamination,” he said.
One other factor suggested by a veterinarian and chemist who could not be quoted by name because of employment conditions at a laboratory where he previously worked: Levels of scopolamine in a sample can be affected by the amount and timing of jimson weed consumption. If a horse were to have nibbled on jimson weed, or eaten big piece in a pile of straw on the day before a race, he might test higher.
George Maylin, veterinarian, Ph.D in pharmacology and head of the New York drug testing laboratory since 1971, says, “If you found one horse, that would indicate that the drug was administered. But with multiple horses in multiple barns, that strongly suggests environmental contamination through a plant alkaloid like jimson weed.” I asked Maylin if scopolamine could be a performance enhancer, as Sams had suggested, but others had argued against. “It could potentially improve breathing,” said Maylin. “Whether it would be performance-enhancing is debatable.”
All of this brings us back to Baffert, and to the CHRB.
First, Baffert. He is an easy target and there are some in the game who would like to see him fall. In 2013, seven Baffert-trained horses died in 15 months, all from the same barn at the now-demolished Hollywood Park. Baffert was found blameless, but the CHRB was unable to identify “a definitive explanation.” On the other side of this coin, Baffert has trained dozens of top-class horses, including five Kentucky Derby winners and the only two Triple Crown winners since 1978.
I spoke to Baffert on the day after the Times story broke. He had been notified of the positive sample nine days before the Kentucky Derby. He requested that the split sample (‘’B Sample,” in human drug-testing parlance) be tested and was notified of that sample’s positive test just after the Derby. “I spent that entire Triple Crown thing waiting for this to come out,” Baffert told me that day. “Now this story comes out and I’ve got to just sit here and take it. It’s environmental. This has been a problem in California for years. I didn’t give Justify any of that. Scopolamine. I wouldn’t even know where to find it.”
There are no absolutes here. Is it possible that Baffert injected Justify, a gifted horse with terrific potential, with a cocktail of scopolamine and atropine, knowing that they would probably light up a post-race drug test, for the potential of performance enhancement that’s not guaranteed? Of course it’s possible. There’s an unspoken truth in sports where doping can provide an advantage (meaning: Most sports): Nobody knows what a competitor does alone in his or her bathroom. Or his barn. But it seems unlikely that Baffert would have taken such a risk, with such significant downside.
Cindy Cole, the Florida-based expert: “Baffert is successful, he’s got a reputation to protect and he’s not stupid. He’s got a really good horse, and that would be proven out in other races. This would have been a huge, ridiculous risk for not a lot of gain.” (That’s gain, as in competitive advantage, not future earnings for his connections).
The kicker here, which changes nothing about what transpired in California, is that Justify won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes and tested clean after all three.
The CHRB is another story. This is the same governing body that was embattled last spring over the deaths of more than 20 horses at Santa Anita (the 2019 total is now reportedly 31 deaths). While the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita and other racetracks, undertook aggressive and controversial measures that improved track and racing and training conditions (and generated positive publicity, which was clearly an accompanying purpose), the CHRB was painfully flatfooted in its response, as Santa Anita was appropriately described as a horse graveyard. In this case, the CHRB has claimed it followed all protocols, after receiving the test results on Justify and the other six horses. “There was an investigation, and there was a decision not to prosecute, based on the evidence,” says Arthur.
The original Times story, and others, argued that Justify should have been disqualified from his victory in the Santa Anita Derby, and thus shouldn’t have competed in the Kentucky Derby. This is wrong for two reasons: Baffert’s split sample wasn’t shipped to a lab until four days before the Kentucky Derby; processing that sample and disqualifying Justify before the Kentucky Derby would have created an unrealistically compressed timeline to adjudicate the case and DQ Justify. Beyond that: Deep breath here. California had, at the time of Justify’s test, listed scopolamine as a Class 3b substance, which would have carried a penalty of disqualification. However, the CHRB had failed to update its rules to account for the decision, in December of 2016, by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, to lower scopolamine to a Class 4c substance. Under ARCI rules, that would still have meant a DQ; but under California rule 1859.5 – “Disqualification for a positive test” – only substances in classes 1-3 carry a disqualification. Hence, Justify should not have been disqualified, even if it was determined that scopolamine was intentionally given, which the reams of evidence cited above indicate that it most likely was not.
However, even if the CHRB muddled through correctly on process, it failed miserably on transparency. Arthur said that the decision to clear Baffert and Justify was reached in July 2018. It was not finalized until a private executive session of the CHRB on Aug. 28, by which time Justify had already won the Triple Crown, been retired with a leg injury and syndicated for that $60 million. The CHRB is chockablock with conflicts. Most notably, during the time frame of the Justify case, Baffert was training a horse for Chuck Winner, who was chairman of the CHRB board (and has since retired). Baffert told me, “I like Chuck. Right now I’ve got one horse with him.” Winner said he has sent three horses to Baffert in 20-plus years. No matter: One is too many. It’s an unacceptable conflict and all too common in racing. In fact, nearly every word of this story is symptomatic of racing’s need for coordinated oversight, which does not appear to be forthcoming.
What remains unfathomable is that once the CHRB cleared Justify in August of 2018, it didn’t quickly make a public statement. That statement absolutely would have been radioactive, but in a society ever more adoptive of conspiracy theories, more radioactive with each passing month: “They had to know it would cause an uproar,” says Steve Barker, the Louisiana drug testing expert. “They should have reported it to the press immediately.” Winner says, “Going public was discussed. But we never go public with a negative finding. I suppose we could have sought permission from Baffert and his owners, and all the other horses that had scopolamine, but in the end, the board, and the lawyers decided to do things the same way we always have.”
Yet even today, the full results have not been made public, findings that many experts could use to explain why Baffert and Justify were cleared by the CHRB. But: Crickets. The reason for this. “Our PR guy is on vacation in Europe,” said Arthur, on Sept. 17. This, you truly cannot make up.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.