Court Orders Disqualification of Justify's Santa Anita Derby Win

Justify in the 2018 Santa Anita Derby | Benoit

A decision may have finally been reached in the long-standing legal skirmish over the results of the 2018 GI Santa Anita Derby, won by Justify (Scat Daddy), according to a release issued Friday afternoon by the connections of Ruis Racing, who campaigned runner-up Bolt d'Oro (Medaglia d'Oro). Ruis Racing has sought a disqualification of Justify by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), as the winner tested positive for scopolamine following the race.

After it was revealed in a report that Justify had tested positive for scopolamine, Ruis began that quest to have the result of the race overturned with Bolt d'Oro declared the winner. Ruis alleged that the CHRB failed to follow its own rules when it decided not to pursue penalties after Justify's positive test. The CHRB acted on recommendations from then-executive director Rick Baedeker and equine medical director Dr. Rick Arthur. It was their call that Justify should not be disqualified because the positive test was the result of contamination linked to jimson weed.

The lack of disqualification at the time was especially significant as the qualifying 'Road to the Kentucky Derby' points Justify earned from his win in the Santa Anita Derby–his first career stakes start–made him eligible for the GI Kentucky Derby a month later. He not only won the Kentucky Derby, but went on to win the Triple Crown as well. Justify, a 'TDN Rising Star' conditioned by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, was raced at that time for the partnership of China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners LLC, Starlight Racing, and WinStar Farm, while Bolt d'Oro was trained for Ruis Racing LLC by Mick Ruis.

The statement, in its entirety, follows:

“Ruis Racing LLC announced today a significant legal victory against the California Horse Racing Board. Represented by attorneys Carlo Fisco and Darrell Vienna, Ruis Racing LLC obtained an order from Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff directing the California Horse Racing Board Stewards to set aside their December 9, 2020 decision and issue a new ruling disqualifying Justify from the 2018 Santa Anita Derby.

“The Steward had originally ruled that they lacked jurisdiction to conduct a Disqualification Hearing in this matter. The Court disagreed and stated in its decision that there is “no reason for remand” as there is “no doubt” the Stewards would have disqualified Justify if they understood that they had the authority to do so.

“Today's decision supports the longstanding California Horse Racing Board rule that any horse racing with a prohibited substance in its system must be disqualified and the purse redistributed.”

TDN was able to option a copy of the ruling, which appears here. The following is found in the ruling's conclusion:

“As the Stewards have already determined what the result would be if they could reach the issue of disqualification on the evidence before them, the court will issue a writ directing the Stewards to set aside their December 9, 2020 decision and Remand Decision and to make a new order disqualifying Justify. Based on the twice-stated clear position of the Stewards, the court finds there is “no reason for remand” of the matter as there is “no real doubt” the Stewards would have disqualified Justify if they understood that Respondent provided them with such authority when Respondent filed the complaint against the Justify Parties.”

According to CHRB spokesperson Mike Marten, the agency has not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling, and there was no further comment on a “pending legal matter.”

Attorney Darrell Vienna, representing Ruis, said that Justify's connections theoretically could also appeal the ruling, “even though this suit was simply between Mick Ruis, under Ruis Racing LLC, versus the California Horse Racing Board.”

Ruis also has a separate civil case pending against the CHRB seeking monetary damages. That case is also filed in the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

“They don't run in parallel. I think if we had lost this case it would have been very problematic for the civil case,” said Vienna.

“We don't have a direct claim against Justify's people,” added Vienna. “The awards and what we want has to come from the CHRB. If they want to chase down Justify's owners for the funds, they can do that. We're not going to do that.”

A footnote in the judge's ruling criticizes the CHRB for entering into a settlement agreement with Ruis, for a stewards purse DQ hearing on the Santa Anita Derby. The stewards subsequently claimed they had no jurisdiction on the matter as it had already been decided–a decision the board then concurred with.

“It strains credulity that a state agency would enter into a settlement agreement providing the other party with illusory relief. That is, why would Respondent settle litigation with Petitioner knowing its complaint could not (as a legal matter) be adjudicated. To the extent the agency did mislead Petitioner, equitable estoppel would likely preclude the agency from depriving the other party with the benefit of its bargain,” the ruling states.

According to Vienna, “we were enticed to enter into an agreement that was not going to be honored.”

Because of the qualifying points system in place for the Kentucky Derby, Justify's berth in that year's contest was incumbent upon his running first or second in the Santa Anita Derby.

When asked if the ruling puts into question Justify's Kentucky Derby win, therefore, Vienna pointed to a similar case he had previously litigated “in which a horse's eligibility was valid until it was disproven.”

“At the time of the running of the Derby, Justify was eligible based on the then-pending decision,” said Vienna. “Subsequently today, that decision was overturned. But at the time he participated in the Derby he had, for all intents and purposes, achieved the right to run in the Derby.”

Vienna added, “if the board had done what they should have done in the first place, he would have been disqualified, and that issue of whether he had enough points for the Derby would have been decided back then.”

Said Vienna, “There's no question that Justify's a very good horse and a great sire, and that Bolt d'Oro's a good horse and a great sire.”

He added, “I'd like to see everybody get back to racing and not fighting.”

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