Legendary trainer Bob Baffert on Thursday denied doping 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify after it emerged the horse failed a drug test before last year's Kentucky Derby.
US racing was rocked on Wednesday after the New York Times revealed that Baffert's Justify had tested positive for the banned substance scopolamine weeks before winning the first leg of the Triple Crown at Churchill Downs.
In a statement on Thursday, Baffert said the scopolamine entered Justify's system through contaminated feed, noting that the banned substance is found in a weed which grows throughout California.
"I unequivocally reject any implication that scopolamine was ever intentionally administered to Justify, or any of my horses," Baffert said in a statement.
"Test results indicating trace amounts of the drug were undoubtedly the result of 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.
"In addition, I had no input into, or influence on, the decisions made by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB)."
Chuck Winner, chairman of the CHRB at the time, issued a statement backing Baffert's claim, saying that Justify was among multiple horses cared for by different trainers at Santa Anita that tested positive at the same time, an indication that contaminated feed was involved.
How the case was handled by the CHRB has come under scrutiny after the Times reported the governing body took more than three weeks to notify Baffert that the horse had failed a test, advising him only nine days before the Kentucky Derby.
It was more than a month before the CHRB confirmed the test result, the Times said, and it was four months later -- after Justify had won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont stakes to become the 13th Triple Crown winner -- that the board voted at a closed-door executive session to dismiss the case.
The Times reported that the decision to dismiss rested on the determination that the positive test could have been the result of contaminated food, citing the presence of jimson weed in California.
- 'All correct procedures' -
Winner said there was "overwhelming evidence that Justify, along with six other horses in four different barns at Santa Anita, ingested scopolamine from jimson weed which was present in the hay that had been delivered to the barns."
"It would have been a complete miscarriage of justice for the CHRB to have taken action against Justify or Baffert, knowing full well that the horse was poisoned by an environmental contaminate and not injected with a substance," Winner said.
Rick Baedeker, executive director of the CHRB, told the Times that Justify was allowed to run because the CHRB would have been unable to produce a definitive investigative report prior to the Kentucky Derby, the biggest event on the US calendar.
Winner added Thursday that the second sample taken from Justify that confirmed the presence of scopolamine did not come back from the independent lab until three days after the Kentucky Derby.
"The California Equine Medical Director, the CHRB staff and the investigators followed all correct procedures in this case," he said.
Baffert, 66, is one of the most successful trainers in the history of US racing.
As well as masterminding Justify's Triple Crown win last year, he also led American Pharoah to the coveted treble in 2015.
In total, Baffert's horses have won five Kentucky Derbies, seven Preakness Stakes, three Belmont Stakes.