Opinion: Try again, Bob. Baffert's response to Justify drug allegations isn't good enough

Dan Wolken, USA TODAY
Published 3:59 p.m. ET Sept. 12, 2019 | Updated 4:03 p.m. ET Sept. 12, 2019CLOSE
SportsPulse: Dan Wolken says the Justify scandal is yet another ugly headline for horse racing, which has had its fair share this year.
USA TODAYFor two decades, Bob Baffert has worn the burden of being horse racing’s most recognizable figure with reliable ease.When the reporters and cameras gather around his barn every morning during the Triple Crown, he’ll go out of his way to shower them with soundbites. When TMZ tracks him outside a Los Angeles restaurant and asks him to predict his next Derby winner, he’ll happily engage in the nonsense. He once was asked to be the celebrity guest picker on ESPN’s “College GameDay,” which is quite a statement in and of itself for someone who trains Thoroughbreds for a living.It’s also why so many within horse racing love him so much. In a sport where the trainers are often reluctant to court fame or publicity, Baffert — with that shock of white hair and the trademark sunglasses that make him instantly recognizable everywhere — has rarely encountered an opportunity to promote himself or the sport that he didn’t take.Which makes Baffert’s response to Wednesday’s explosive New York Times story about his 2018 Triple Crown winner, Justify, all the more inadequate. Thus far, Baffert has issued two statements about the report, which details how Justify tested positive after the Santa Anita Derby for above-threshold levels of a drug called scopolamine. It also shows how the California Horse Racing Board essentially threw out the result and worked to keep the positive test from becoming public, raising significant questions about conflicts of interest with board members and whether Baffert received preferential treatment. The first statement on Thursday morning, issued by Baffert’s attorney and addressed to Times reporter Joe Drape, called the story “long on sensationalism, short on facts, and does a great disservice to Mr. Baffert, JUSTIFY, and the entire horse industry.”In a second statement attributed to Baffert himself, he denied giving scopolamine to the horse and attributed the positive test to “environmental contamination caused by the presence of Jimson Weed in feed, a naturally growing substance in areas where hay and straw are produced in California” while pointing out that Justify had clean drug tests after all three Triple Crown races. Sorry, but that’s not good enough. And it’s not going to be the end of the questions surrounding Baffert and how California regulators handled the test. The horse racing establishment is already going to work, calling Drape agenda-driven, circling the wagons to protect the legacy of its biggest human star and trying to pass this off as a process controversy rather than a massive black mark on one of the sport’s all-time great achievements. And because of what’s at stake here, Baffert needs to step up and answer some questions, not hide behind coordinated talking points 15 hours after the story broke. (According to Drape, Baffert declined multiple requests to discuss the issue before the story was published, which isn’t a great look either, given the seriousness of the allegations.)Regardless of whether scopolamine enhances performance or not — that’s another excuse some horse racing folks are using today — and regardless of whether 300 nanongrams per milliliter could even be attained through contamination, it’s still a positive test above the threshold level allowed by California regulations. And if you’re going to attribute it to the jimson weed, aren’t there some obvious follow-ups here, like where did Baffert source Justify’s feed and hay? Did other horses in his barn test positive for scopolamine and at similar levels? If not, that would seem to be both relevant and damning. According to the statement from Baffert’s attorney, W. Craig Robertson, however, after notification of the positive test, Robertson told California regulators he “would vigorously defend Mr. Baffert should the CHRB pursue an action to either disqualify JUSTIFY or suspend Mr. Baffert,” and that the board was left with a choice to “either pursue a frivolous case that had no merit at great taxpayer expense — or exercise reason and common sense and decide to take no further action.” Does that really sound like a trainer who was eager to get to the bottom of a positive test and vigorously defend himself, or someone who was trying to run out the clock via threat before the Kentucky Derby and hope it would go away?And that question should matter to everyone involved, because if Justify had been disqualified from the Santa Anita Derby for the positive test, he wouldn’t have even qualified for the Kentucky Derby. Because California regulators heeded Robertson’s warning, we may never know what should have actually happened with Justify, and there may be no remedy available to change or even put an asterisk next to history. But as the face of the sport, Baffert’s response so far doesn’t even come close to answering the questions that need to be asked. AutoplayShow ThumbnailsShow CaptionsLast SlideNext Slide

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