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Justify, Scopolamine, and Jimsonweed


Compiled by Nancy Brannon
Photo: Trainer Bob Baffert walks Justify around the barn in New York in June 2018 before the Belmont Stakes. (photo by: Julio Cortez / Associated Press)
The controversy over 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify
On September 11-12, 2019, Joe Drape published in the New York Times a startling story about 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify failing a drug test just weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Drape surmises that had the sport’s rules been followed correctly, the failed drug test on April 7, 2018, that tested positive for the banned drug scopolamine, would have meant disqualification from entry into the Kentucky Derby for Justify. Despite the drug test, Justify raced in and won the Santa Anita Derby that day (April 7, 2018) by three-lengths, a qualifying race for the Kentucky Derby.

Drape writes that “Test results, emails and internal memorandums in the Justify case show how California regulators waited nearly three weeks, until the Kentucky Derby was only nine days away, to notify Baffert that his Derby favorite had failed a doping test.” (The 2018 Kentucky Derby was run on May 5, 2018.)

“Four months later — and more than two months after Justify, Baffert, and the horse’s owners celebrated their Triple Crown victory in New York — the board disposed of the inquiry altogether during a closed-door executive session. It decided, with little evidence, that the positive test could have been a result of Justify’s eating contaminated food. The board voted unanimously to dismiss the case. In October, it changed the penalty for a scopolamine violation to the lesser penalty of a fine and possible suspension,” Drape wrote.

Drape writes that Rick Baedeker, executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, “said regulators moved cautiously because scopolamine could be found in jimson weed, which can grow wildly where dung is present and become inadvertently mixed in feed, and that ‘environmental contamination’ is often used as a defense.”

Later in the article Drape writes that “blood and urine samples from Justify and 34 other horses who competed on the day of the Santa Anita Derby (April 7) were delivered on April 10 to a lab at the University of California, Davis. The lab sent notice on April 18, two and a half weeks before the Kentucky Derby, that Justify had tested positive for scopolamine…”

Drape paraphrased Dr. Rick Sams, who ran the drug lab for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission from 2011 – 2018, who “said scopolamine can act as a bronchodilator to clear a horse’s airway and optimize a horse’s heart rate, making the horse more efficient. He said the amount of scopolamine found in Justify — 300 nanograms per milliliter — was excessive, and suggested the drug was intended to enhance performance.”

Drape did write that scopolamine can be found in Jimsonweed, but that “the plant’s strong odor and foul taste make it unappealing.”

In November 2016 the Paulick Report reported a release from the California Horse Racing Board that a batch of straw that was delivered to Del Mar Racetrack was found to be contaminated with Jimsonweed. However, the BloodHorse reported that “only one contaminated bale had been seen so far.”

Drape goes on to describe the delay in reporting and that on April 26, four days before Justify was to ship to Louisville, KY, trainer Bob Baffert received notification that Justify had tested positive for scopolamine. Baffert asked for another sample from that test to be sent to an approved independent lab, sent on May 1, and on May 8 the lab confirmed the original result. The Derby was held on May 5, 2018.

Drape said that Baffert did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him for this article.

However, the Paulick Report published on Sept. 12 Baffert’s statement in which he “unequivocally reject[s] any implication that scopolamine was ever intentionally administered to Justify, or any of my horses. Test results indicating trace amounts of the drug were undoubtedly the result of environmental contamination caused by the presence of Jimson Weed in feed…”

My research from some reliable sources found out more about Jimsonweed.

HorseDVM states: Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) is a tall shrub with hanging, trumpet-shaped flowers that is a member of the Solanaceae family. All parts of D. stramonium contain tropane alkaloids, tannins, saponins and cardiac glycosides. There are 64 different types of tropane alkaloids; however, the ones of main concern are atropine and scopolamine.

Horses generally will avoid eating D. stramonium, due to its unpleasant odor, unless no other forage is available or it’s mixed in with the hay. The range of toxicity is highly variable and unpredictable.

If a horse ingests Jimsonweed, symptoms can be: restlessness, dilated pupils, frequent urination, twitching, depression, increased heart rate, respiratory distress, incoordintion, diarrhea, lowered body temperature, and convulsions.

The UT Extension Service lists Jimsonweed in its publication “Poisonous Plants of the Southeastern United States.” The entry on Jimsonweed, Datura stramonium describes it as a: “course, foul-smelling glabrous annual….Distributed throughout the South: most abundant in fertile fields, gardens, and barn lots.

“The toxic principles of this common hot lot and barnyard plant are the alkaloids atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine. All parts of the plant are considered poisonous, whether green or dry. The seeds are particularly poisonous. Usually, this plant is not eaten except when other forage is not available.

“Early symptoms include a weak and rapid pulse and heart beat, widely dilated eyes, and dryness of mouth and other mucous membranes. Animals may appear blind. Later symptoms include slow breathing, lowered temperature, convulsions, or coma.” (pp. 11-12)

In another follow up to the NY Times report, the Paulick Report published a press release from the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium  (RMTC):

“Scopolamine (also known as hyoscine) is conventionally used in human medicine for the prevention of motion sickness.
It is available by prescription in tablet and transdermal patch formulations.  It has also had limited use in conjunction with general anesthesia in reducing airway secretions. It is associated with side effects of dizziness, drowsiness, blurred vision, nausea and dry mouth.

“Scopolamine has limited historical use in equine veterinary medicine to relieve intestinal spasms in the treatment of gas colic. However, gastrointestinal side effects, potential toxicity, and the development of safer, more effective medications have rendered its use as a therapeutic medication obsolete.”

The press release reiterated information from other sources: an alkaloid present in Jimsonweed has a strong odor and bitter taste such that animals tend to avoid its consumption unless other feed sources are unavailable.

However, the RMTC press release further stated: “Scopolamine has been detected in the blood and/or urine of animals having consumed hay containing Jimsonweed, as the odor and bitter taste dissipate during the hay curing process.  Symptoms of scopolamine toxicity, as observed in horses having consumed Jimsonweed-contaminated hay, include dilated pupils and intestinal paralysis, and can persist for several days following ingestion.”

I found one relevant scholarly article on scopolamine from March 2014 in The Veterinary Journal. “Scopolamine (l-hyoscine) identifications, often in small-number clusters, have been reported worldwide in performance horses over the last 30 years. Scopolamine is an Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) class 3, penalty class B, substance with potential to affect performance. As such, scopolamine identification(s) in race or performance horses can result in significant penalties for the connections of the horse(s). Reviewed here is the worldwide distribution of scopolamine containing plants (primarily Datura spp.), with estimates of their potential toxicity to horses through dietary and/or environmental exposure. Also reviewed are the basic pharmacology of scopolamine and its precursor, urinary concentrations following feedstuff exposure, and the probable pharmacological/forensic significance of such findings.”

One local veterinarian I asked about scopolamine said, “It has almost no use in horses.”

Drug Test Questions
A significant question concerns the specific amount of scopolamine found in Justify’s tested sample: 300 nanograms per milliliter, which was determined “excessive” by Dr. Rick Sams. The Blood Horse reported in an article by Frank Angst that, “Knowing the potential for [environmental] contamination, the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities has put a residue limit in place of 60 nanograms per milliliter in urine to try to account for such contamination. As reported in the NY Times story and confirmed by California Horse Racing Board equine medical director Dr. Rick Arthur, the test indicated Justify had 300 nanograms per milliliter of scopolamine in his system” – five times the allowed residual.

“According to a number of veterinary sites, scopolamine is found in the drug Buscopan, which is used to treat mild colic, spasms, and gastrointestinal pain. Arthur said there was one other horse who surpassed the scopolamine threshold and a number of other horses who showed some level of the substance in their systems after racing at Santa Anita Park that weekend, April 6-8, 2018. He also noted that when the positive is associated with jimson weed, as opposed to an administration of Buscopan, the lab indicates positives for both scopolamine and atropine, which was the case with Justify and five other horses that weekend. Finally, he noted that the level of scopolamine that showed up in Justify’s blood test was much lower than what came back in his urine test, which he said was another factor indicating contamination.

“While Buscopan has a clinical use, it's not among the accepted medications on the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium’s list of controlled therapeutics. The RMTC issued a Sept. 12 release explaining that better medications have come along for treating the horse… and have rendered its use as a therapeutic medication obsolete.”

Angst’s article goes on to describe how the rules re: the amount of scopolamine allowed and the penalties for its appearance in drug tests have changed, i.e., moved from a Class 3 to Class 4, indicating a lesser chance to influence performance.

Since the drug appeared in several other horses’ drug tests, was there any warning given by the California Horse Racing Board or Santa Anita officials that potentially contaminated hay or straw was on the premises?

The Los Angeles Times reported on Sept. 12, 2019 that “Justify was not alone at Santa Anita, as a total of seven horses in five different barns all tested positive [for scopolamine] at the same time.

“Chuck Winner, who was the chairman of the CHRB at the time, on Thursday cited ‘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.’”

If contaminated hay had been delivered to the barns, did the California Horse Racing Board or Santa Anita officials issue a warning about this? If they did not, why? The only CHRB warning about Jimsonweed in hay/straw that I could find reported was issued Nov. 14, 2016 for Del Mar Racetrack, and that was only one contaminated bale (as mentioned above).

“Dr. Mary Scollay, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium …said the drug is not a performance enhancer and the amount, 300 nanograms, while above the accepted limit, provides no more clues. ‘You cannot discern intent from concentration,’ Scollay said.

“Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the CHRB …called this contamination ‘unusual but not unprecedented.’”

The case of Justify’s failed drug test became an impetus for animal advocacy groups push harder for national legislative reform, calling for passage of the 2019 Horseracing Integrity Act [H.R. 1754]. U.S. Reps. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), and Andy Barr (R-Ky.), congressmen representing Saratoga Springs and Lexington, respectively, introduced the bill on March 14, 2019 to create a uniform national standard for drug testing in racehorses that would be overseen by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. So far, the bill has garnered the bipartisan support of over 130 representatives in Congress.

The reputation of Santa Anita race track remains tainted with the deaths of 30 horses at its facility from Dec. 26, 2018 to June 30, 2019. That number increased to 31 when a 4-year-old gelding named Zeke was euthanized on Sept. 16, 2019 after working on Santa Anita’s training track, considered to be the facility’s safest surface, reported by John Cherwa in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 17, 2019 and Michael Brice-Saddler in The Washington Post on Sept. 18, 2019. According to the LA Times report, the horse was diagnosed with a pelvic fracture.

The 2019 Breeders’ Cup will be held at Santa Anita on November 1 and 2.
Sources: (see p. 17 for entry on Jimsonweed)
Brewer, Kimberly, Levent Dirikolu, Charlie G. Hughes, Thomas Tobin. 2014. “Scopolamine in racing horses: Trace identifications associated with dietary or environmental exposure.” The Veterinary Journal (Vol. 199, issue 3) March

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