After a disturbing period in which seven horses died at Churchill Downs in the run-up to last week’s Kentucky Derby, horse racing is once again embroiled in controversy, this time in a doping case involving one of its biggest stars.
On a rainy afternoon last September, a stallion named Forte rode into the starting gate of the Hopeful Stakes, an early and important race on the way to the Derby, at odds of almost 7-1. Apparently enjoying the sloppy Saratoga Springs, NY circuit, he unleashed a powerful kick in the track to win by a length.
Shortly after leaving the winners’ circle, however, Forte was subjected to a post-race drug test, which he failed but has yet to be decided before New York regulators, according to two people familiar with the matter, but are not authorized to speak about it.
According to these two people, the positive test was for a substance used to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
In the months following the failed test, Forte won his next four races, including two key pre-Derby events, November’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and last month’s Florida Derby. The colt was named 2-year-old Male Horse Racing Champion, a title that greatly increased his value as a potential stallion to co-owners Mike Repole and Vincent Viola.
On Saturday, Forte was the favorite to win the derby until he was scratched hours before the race when Kentucky state vets ruled him unfit due to a bruise on his right front hoof.
After several delays, New York race officials are scheduled to hear from Forte’s trainer, Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, about September’s drug test failure on Wednesday, the two people said.
“This matter would likely have been decided months ago but for the repeated procedural delays demanded by the coach’s attorney,” said a spokesman for the New York State Gaming Commission.
The Forte camp tried again on Tuesday to delay the procedure, according to the two people.
Repole, who made his fortune in the beverage industry, and representatives from Viola, who also owns the NHL’s Florida Panthers, did not return calls or texts. Pletcher also did not respond to requests for comment.
After speaking briefly, Pletcher’s attorney, Karen Murphy, said she would call back. She did not, nor did she respond to subsequent phone and text messages.
Horse racing has already faltered after the seven fatalities at Churchill Downs, including two horses on the derby’s undercard. They came for one of the few times in the year when the sporting world focuses on horse racing: the Triple Crown season, starting with the Derby, followed by the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.
The deaths have renewed long-standing concerns about the safety of racehorses. The industry is plagued by doping scandals, competition from other sports betting and dwindling fan interest.
Also last week, trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. was suspended indefinitely from the Derby and all Churchill Downs Inc.-owned courses after two of his horses collapsed on the course during the race and died of unexplained causes. Joseph’s Lord Miles was not allowed to take part in the derby.
That criticism was consistent with the hard line the track laid down in 2021 after Medina Spirit, a colt trained by Bob Baffert, failed a drug test after winning the derby. When the results came out, Medina Spirit was disqualified and Baffert was banned from the Derby and Churchill Downs courses for two years.
Horse racing in the United States has long admitted that it has a culture of drugs and lax regulation, and a far higher rate of horses collapsing and being euthanized than most other places in the world. The newly formed Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Agency, overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, was created to establish strict medication rules and meaningful penalties for violators. It is also expected to streamline a decision-making process that has varied from state to state and has often taken months or even years to resolve cases.
The authority will only take control of doping and medication on May 22, two days after the preakness.
Pletcher has been named a seven-time champion trainer and has won two Kentucky Derbys and two Belmont Stakes. He had a drug violation in New York in 2004 over the drug mepivacaine, a local anesthetic. He served a 45-day suspension and was fined $3,000, according to the website of wholebredrulings.com, a website of the Jockey Club, an industry organization.
Where Forte will run next also remains in question. The colt galloped at Churchill Downs on Monday and Pletcher said Forte appears healthy and he is considering putting him in the Preakness in Baltimore against Derby winner Mage, a horse Forte overtook in the closing steps of the Florida Derby.
However, Kentucky regulators said Forte was ineligible to play in the second leg of the Triple Crown because they scratched him and he was on a 14-day ban list.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission said in a statement, “After 14 days, the requirements for delisting include satisfactory training conducted for a state veterinarian and a negative blood test result.”