After a disquieting period in which seven horses died at Churchill Downs during the run-up to last week’s Kentucky Derby, horse racing is again caught up in a controversy, this one a doping case involving one of its biggest stars.
On a rainy September afternoon last year, a colt named Forte eased into the starting gate of the Hopeful Stakes, an early and important race on the road to the Derby, at odds of nearly 7-1. He apparently relished the sloppy racetrack in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., unleashing a powerful kick in the stretch to win by a length.
Shortly after leaving the winner’s circle, however, Forte was given a post-race drug test, which he failed but has yet to be adjudicated before New York regulators, according to two people who are familiar with the matter but are not authorized to speak about it.
The positive test was for a substance used to relieve pain and reduce inflammation, according to those two people.
In the months after the failed test, Forte won his next four races, including two important events before the Derby, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November and the Florida Derby last month. The colt was named horse racing’s 2-year-old male champion, a title that greatly increased his value as a potential stallion for the co-owners Mike Repole and Vincent Viola.
On Saturday, Forte was the favorite to win the Derby until he was scratched just hours before the race when Kentucky state veterinarians declared him unfit for competition because of a bruise to his right front hoof.
After several delays, New York racing officials are scheduled on Wednesday to hear from Forte’s trainer, the Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, about the failed drug test from September, according to the two people.
“This matter likely would have been adjudicated months ago but for the repeated procedural delays sought by the trainer’s counsel,” said a spokesperson for the New York State Gaming Commission.
The Forte camp tried on Tuesday to delay the proceeding once more, according to the two people.
Repole, who made his fortune in the beverage industry, and representatives for Viola, who also owns the N.H.L.’s Florida Panthers, did not return phone calls or text messages. Pletcher also did not respond to requests for comment.
Pletcher’s lawyer, Karen Murphy, said after a brief conversation that she would call back. She did not, nor did she respond to subsequent phone and text messages.
Horse racing is already reeling after the seven Churchill Downs deaths, which included two horses on the Derby undercard. They came during one of the few times each year that the sports world is focused on horse racing: the Triple Crown season, beginning with the Derby and followed by the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.
The deaths have renewed longstanding concerns about the safety of racehorses. The industry is beset by doping scandals, competition from other forms of sports betting and dwindling interest among fans.
Also last week, the trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. was suspended indefinitely from the Derby and from all tracks owned by Churchill Downs Inc. after two of his horses collapsed and died of undetermined causes while racing on the track. Joseph’s Lord Miles was not allowed to compete in the Derby.
That censure was consistent with the hard line set by the track in 2021 after Medina Spirit, a colt trained by Bob Baffert, failed a drug test after winning the Derby. When the results became known, Medina Spirit was disqualified and Baffert was barred from the Derby and tracks owned by Churchill Downs 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 breaking down and being euthanized than in most other places in the world. The newly minted Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, was created to come up with strict medication rules and meaningful punishments for violations. It is also expected to streamline an adjudication process that has varied from state to state and has often taken months or even years to settle cases.
The authority does not take control of doping and medication until May 22, two days after the Preakness.
Pletcher has been named champion trainer seven times and has won two Kentucky Derbies and two Belmont Stakes. He had a prior medication violation in 2004 in New York for the drug mepivacaine, a local anesthetic. He served a 45-day suspension and was fined $3,000, according to thoroughbredrulings.com, a website maintained by the Jockey Club, an industry organization.
Where Forte may run next also remains in question. The colt galloped at Churchill Downs on Monday and Pletcher said Forte appeared healthy and he was considering running him in the Preakness in Baltimore against the Derby winner Mage, a horse Forte passed in the closing strides of the Florida Derby.
Kentucky regulators, however, said Forte is not eligible to run in the second leg of the Triple Crown because they scratched him and he is on a 14-day restricted list.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission said in a statement, “After 14 days, the requirements for removal from the list include a satisfactory workout performed for a state regulatory veterinarian and a negative blood sample result.”