By T. D. Thornton
The long and complicated case over whether to disqualify 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify for his GI Santa Anita Derby scopolamine positive sparked back to life Dec. 17, eight days after the Santa Anita Park board of stewards dismissed complaints against two Bob Baffert-trained horses that had been filed by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) as part of a legal settlement.
At the outset of Thursday's regularly scheduled CHRB meeting, the board's executive director, Scott Chaney, explained how because of a newly filed appeal, the 2 1/2-year regulatory odyssey that a previous version of the CHRB largely adjudicated in secret would once again hinge on another closed-session vote by current CHRB members Jan. 21, 2021.
Chaney said as part of his monthly report that “the board of stewards at Santa Anita issued a [Dec. 9] decision in which they concluded that a disqualification was not appropriate. I made the decision not to appeal that ruling. The board has since received a request to appeal and overturn that decision from the connections of the second-place finisher in the race in question, Bolt d'Oro. The board will decide whether to entertain that request during the executive session at the January board meeting.”
CHRB members did not ask questions about Chaney's report when given the opportunity to comment on it after he was finished.
On Oct. 29, the stewards listened to four-plus hours of back-and-forth testimony and cross-examination that largely centered on scopolamine's classification at the time of Justify's positive. Baffert's attorney also argued that the stewards shouldn't even be re-hearing the case at all because the CHRB already adjudicated it without imposing any penalization or race disqualification in an August 2018 executive session.
That controversial 2018 commission vote took place privately after a detailed–but not publicly disclosed at the time–investigation that led to the exoneration of Justify and Baffert based on a finding of accidental environmental contamination by jimson weed.
Although Justify was the “headline horse” in that case, the stewards on Oct. 29 were also tasked with re-adjudicating a scopolamine positive from MGISW Hoppertunity, another Baffert trainee who similarly tested dirty when winning the GIII Tokyo City Cup S. the day after Justify won the Santa Anita Derby.
But it was more than a year before news about Justify's positive and non-penalization became widely known. On Sept. 11, 2019, the New York Times broke the story that Justify tested positive when he won the Santa Anita Derby, a GI Kentucky Derby points qualifying race that vaulted him into contention for the Triple Crown that he would eventually sweep.
That revelation sparked a January 2020 lawsuit initiated against the CHRB by Mick Ruis, who owned and trained the 2018 Santa Anita Derby runner-up, Bolt d'Oro. In his suit, Ruis alleged that the CHRB's secret vote to dismiss the case led Ruis to suffer “the loss of purse caused by the CHRB's failing to disqualify Justify and re-distribute the purse for the positive test result.”
Eight months later, as part of a negotiated settlement to get Ruis to drop his lawsuit, the CHRB again met in closed session, voting Aug. 20, 2020, to reverse its previous course of no action and to proceed with a complaint seeking the disqualification of Justify and the redistribution of the purse from that stakes.
That led to the Oct. 29 hearing, which then produced the Dec. 9 order of dismissal signed by stewards John Herbuveaux, Kim Sawyer, and Ron Church.