By Dan Ross
Trainer Mick Ruis filed a petition against the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) Monday in the Los Angeles Superior Court for writ of mandate and damages. The petition concerns Justify (Scat Daddy)’s victory in the 2018 GI Santa Anita Derby, in which the Ruis-trained Bolt d’Oro (Medaglia d’Oro) finished runner-up to the Bob Baffert-trained runner.
In a post-race urine sample, Justify tested positive for scopolamine–a prohibited substance–as revealed by The New York Times in a bombshell story September of last year. Scopolamine is found in jimsonweed, which is known to contaminate feedstuffs like hay. The CHRB didn’t file a complaint, choosing instead to dismiss Justify’s positive in a closed-door session in August of 2018.
After his win in the $1-million Santa Anita Derby, the Bob Baffert-trained Justify proceeded to annex the Triple Crown. He was retired unbeaten shortly thereafter.
The petition seeks for a peremptory writ of mandate ordering the board to set aside its dismissal of the case, and for the purse money to be redistributed. The difference between winning and finishing second in the Santa Anita Derby that year was $400,000.
“There was another way to handle this, and it was simply for the CHRB to do what it normally does and follow its own procedures: to file a complaint and to have a hearing,” said Darrell Vienna, Ruis’s attorney. “If at the hearing, [CHRB Equine Medical Director] Rick Arthur or anyone wanted to present evidence that this was a case of environmental contamination, they could have exonerated Mr. Baffert, and that would have still left the issue of redistribution of purse. That’s what normally happens in almost every case.”
Towards the end of last year, Ruis requested the CHRB to conduct a public hearing into the board’s handling of the case. The board denied Ruis’s request.
“Why was this case handled differently?” said Vienna. “If this was the other way around, if Mick Ruis had the winning horse and it tested positive, do you think this would have happened? Because I don’t.”
Though the CHRB told TDN that it has no comment at this time, it has consistently denied wrongdoing. In a statement to the TDN last October, for example, Baedeker wrote that the CHRB’s decision was based on the “merits of the case”, which showed that Justify’s positive was a case of environmental contamination.
“Scopolamine naturally occurs in jimsonweed, which is sometimes harvested along with straw or hay and delivered to racetracks for feed or bedding. Such contamination has occurred in the past, as in 2016 when the CHRB issued an advisory after jimsonweed had been found in straw at Del Mar and again in spring of 2018 at Santa Anita, when laboratory findings found that several horses in various barns had ingested plant alkaloids, including scopolamine, from straw, hay or other feed. Jimsonweed was subsequently located in straw there,” Baedeker wrote.
“The Board, in consultation with the Executive Director and the Equine Medical Director [Rick Arthur], may choose not to file a complaint when an investigation determines that a laboratory finding resulted from factors beyond the control of the trainer or owner, such as environmental contamination,” Baedeker added.
In Monday’s court filing, the timeline of events is laid out in chronological order. The Santa Anita Derby was held Apr. 7. On Apr. 18, the filing states, the laboratory reported that Justify’s official urine sample contained scopolamine.
“On Apr. 20, 2018, CHRB Equine Medical Director Rick Arthur emailed CHRB Executive Director Rick Baedeker, CHRB counsel, and the CHRB Chief Investigator stating that the Justify case needs to be ‘handled differently than usual,'” the filing states.
On May 28, the laboratory confirmed the positive in a split sample, the filing states. Then, in August of that year, the CHRB held a special executive session meeting to consider the matter, unanimously voting to dismiss the case.
At the crux of the issue, according to the filing, is whether the CHRB made a legal error in treating the overage as a Class 4c violation with a lesser penalty, rather than a tougher 3b penalty which would have required disqualification and redistribution of purse money.
“On the day of the collection of the official sample (Apr. 7, 2018),” the court filing states, “the CHRB classification for a scopolamine violation was a Class 3 Penalty category B which requires forfeiture of the purse.”
In May of 2018, the CHRB drafted an amendment to its drug classification rules, proposing that scopolamine will be lowered from a Class 3b violation to a Class 4c violation. This removed the requirement for disqualification of the horse and forfeiture of the purse. The drug, however, didn’t officially receive its lesser categorization until Jan. 1, 2019.
According to Vienna, even if Justify is stripped of his victory in the Santa Anita Derby, that action wouldn’t impact his subsequent achievements.
“There’s a California case which says a horse’s eligibility [to compete] is determined at the point which it is entered and nominated,” he said. “At that point in time, there had been no adjudication. He was eligible to compete in all those races.”