The Santa Anita Derby is the epitome of bigtime horse racing. It has a brand name and a long history, starting back in 1935. It is a big money race, with a $1 million purse, $600,000 goes to the winner, $200,000 to the runner-up. And it is a qualifier. Those first two horses become eligible to enter the Kentucky Derby, the first race of the fabled Triple Crown.
The winner in 2018 was a horse called Justify, and the Santa Anita Derby qualification was especially important for this three-year-old colt, so slow-developing as a racer it did not compete as a two-year-old.
Justify won at Santa Anita, qualified for the Kentucky Derby, won it, and the Preakness and the Belmont, and became the second Triple Crown winner in three years, after a superhorse void of 35 years. Both Justify and the 2015 winner American Pharaoh were trained by Bob Baffert, American horse-racing’s most successful, most renowned trainer.
But a post-race test after the Santa Anita Derby showed Justify with significant quantities of scopolamine, a drug most vets consider performance-enhancing. That’s why Justify’s positive test should have cost him his Santa Anita victory and his place in the starting gate at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby.
But it didn’t. Although the test results reached Baffert and Justify’s owners a week before the Kentucky Race, officials at Churchill Downs say they never got them, and because of machinations by the California Horse Racing Board, the disqualifying test results were kept hidden from the public until August, 2019 when our guest today, Joe Drape, broke the story in the New York Times.
This devastating scandal came on the heels of a tragic season of racing at Santa Anita, in which 30 horses had to be destroyed after suffering injuries either training for racing at the track.
That record-breaking casualty count, and the probable underestimation by the American Jockey Club that on average 10 horses die at race tracks every week, have created a public backlash, and political fury. The Los Angeles DA’s office is investigating the 30 horse deaths. The California legislature is holding hearings and considering administrative reforms and the governor of the Golden State Gavin Newsom is dropping bombs both rhetorical and regulatory. In an interview with the Times he burst out: “I’ll tell you, talk about a sport whose time is up unless they reform. That’s horse racing.”
To speed reform, the governor has already replaced three members of the Racing Board and plans to name a new chair…and promises all will have this new qualification: no direct ties to the people – owners, trainers and jockeys and others – who work at the track.
One veteran horse racing regulator suggests another crucial reform, racing board commissioners should not be allowed to wager on races run in their jurisdiction. This is not yet part of Gov. Newsom’s California reform package.
Joe Drape has been writing about the intersection of sports, culture and money since coming to The New York Times in 1998. He has also pursued these lines of reporting as a book author, most recently in the Times best-sellers “American Pharoah: The Untold Story of the Triple Crown Champion’s Legendary Rise” and “Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains With the Smith Center Redmen.”