Falcon Points

Justify's failed drug test casts light on a bigger problem in gambling

Santaanita.com

In 2018, Justify won horse racing's Triple Crown, sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. It was the second time a horse had accomplished the feat since 2015. Before that, the last winner was in 1978. It is one of the most difficult accomplishments in sports.

The horses that have won it are instantly enshrined in history and compared to the all-time greats, like Secretariat and Seattle Slew. When American Pharoah won in 2015, that was indeed the case. He would go on to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, becoming the first horse to win the Triple Crown and the Classic. It was an amazing year, and he was truly a brilliant race horse who captivated fans around the country.

When Justify won just three years later, it did not feel the same. He beat a very suspect group of three year olds, and was not impressive doing it. And then he retired as if his connections were afraid to see him lose against older horses and taint his legacy. No one compared him to any of the all time greats. It simply felt weird.

Now it makes sense

As the memory of Justify was slipping into history, a bombshell broke on Wednesday. Joe Drape of the New York Times dropped an in depth piece on the horse. Justify failed a drug test after the Santa Anita Derby. He should have been disqualified from his win in the race, and would not have even been in the Triple Crown. But the ruling was put off, kept under wraps, and the horse was allowed to race. After he won the Triple Crown, the board lessened the penalty for use of the particular drug he was caught with, effectively changing the rules to avoid a bad look.

Then it was somehow kept under wraps for two years.

Bad looks all around

As a longtime fan and supporter of the sport, stories like this are beyond frustrating, and goes to a deeper problem: Inconsistent rules. Each state has its own set of rules, and they are not all enforced consistently. When Maximum Security was disqualified from the Kentucky Derby, it was a controversy of the first order. Whether or not it was the right call varies from state to state, and even track to track. Stewards make those calls, and they are subjective. What is enforced in one place is not in another. Not everyone plays by the same standards.

Why Justify?

There is no reason to doubt Drape's reporting. He is one of the best in the business, especially when it comes to the news of the sport, and his story is well worth your time. So the real question is why?

The California Horse Racing Board took almost a month to confirm the results, ostensibly because they wanted to be sure. But that put them up against the Derby, and a DQ at that point would have been problematic. There is nothing wrong in being sure and getting the ruling right. But then once the horse wins the Triple Crown, imagine the outrage had it gone public.

There were three real problems; the lack of transparency, changing the rules and potential conflict of interest. Some of the board members are horse owners; the chairman owns horses raced by Justify's high profile trainer, Bob Baffert.

The board may have very well been, er, justified in all of its moves. But these three issues make it a very bad look.

The ruling that it was accidental, then, is easy to question. Baffert has had a ton of success and does not need to cheat, but he is not the only one in the barn or with contact to the horses. So it is possible the ruling was the right thing, but the way it happened is simply unacceptable. That the rules were changed after the Triple Crown makes it look even worse.

Black eyes? 

Those calling it yet another black eye on a sport that has had its share this year - the deaths at Santa Anita and the Derby itself - are merely scratching the surface. The sport has no eyes left. They have been beaten so hard it doesn't begin to tell the story. I have seen it all over the years; fixed races, horses being held back, inconsistent rulings, high profile cheating trainers. There are more good people than bad in racing, as there is in all of life. But it's always the bad that get the attention and ruin it for everyone else. Were these bad people? No. But when you try to hide something like this, there is no way to spin it into a positive.

The biggest issue - players have no rights

Lost in all this is the person who bets. Those of us who bet against Justify have no recourse. As sports betting becomes legal everywhere, these are issues that will impact more than horse racing. We already see it in boxing and MMA; you bet on a fight, lose and then a few days later whoever won failed a drug test and is disqualified. What if you bet on the Saints to cover Monday night, and two days after Deshaun Watson is suspended for PEDs and should have never played? While that is extreme - you made your decision based on the fact that he was playing - the player has no voice.

Horse racing should be more cognizant of that than any sport. Without betting, it does not exist. With sports betting coming to more states, horseplayers will gravitate away, especially as controversies like this keep happening. It is a sport that has been filled with controversy with years. Horse racing is where steroids started. Everyone in the sport should be aware of that.

There aren't a lot of us broken down horseplayers left. Decisions like this make it harder to keep trusting that the races we are betting on are honest.

The final analysis

Justify's breeding rights were sold for $60 million. As for his legacy? Most considered him the worst Triple Crown winner in history before. This won't do anything but reinforce that, but the breeding money spends just the same. Drape's story doesn't really change anything in the grand scheme. It simply casts light on a problem that needs to be dealt with whenever gambling and people's investments are involved: Transparency. Honestly. Consistency.

I won't hold my breath.

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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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