(Justify / Photos by Holly M. Smith)

(Oscar Gonzales, Jr. / Photo From Trainermagazine.com)

Late last week, former trainer and current attorney Darrel Vienna sent out a press release announcing that his client, owner/trainer Mick Ruis, has now reached an agreement with the California Horse Racing Board regarding the now-controversial 2018 Santa Anita Derby.

What Vienna did not announce in the release — which praises members of the current CHRB board — is that Oscar Gonzales, Jr., who is currently serving as the Board’s Vice Chairman, once worked for the former trainer.

According to an article that was first published in “Trainer Magazine” on Oct. 23, 2019, reporter Annie Lambert wrote a sterling article on Gonzales, who was appointed to California’s racing oversight board last year by Governor Gavin Newsom.

In fact, the article is so recent that it is still available online at www.trainermagazine.com.

In that piece, Lambert wrote:

“While attending ELAC, (East Los Angeles College) Gonzales went to work full-time at the racetrack rubbing horses in Darrell Vienna’s barn for three years. When he transferred to UCSD he spent two years working for D Wayne Lukas and his assistant, Randy Bradshaw, at San Diego Chargers owner Gene Klein’s training facility in Rancho Santa Fe near Del Mar.”

This is just another bizarre twist and turn in the history of the 2018 Santa Anita Derby, which was won by Justify — who went on to become the first and only undefeated winner of the Triple Crown.

And, this most recent development raises significant questions about who from the CHRB was involved in this negotiation for a possible settlement; who pushed for a possible settlement; what role did the current Vice Chairman play in those discussions; and did he, in fact or no, recuse himself from any discussions based on his former business and personal relationship with the attorney in question.

All legit and serious questions about a situation full of questions.

“The Pressbox” reached out to Mike Marten, spokesman for the CHRB, on Sunday to seek comment and to confirm if Gonzales participated in these legal discussions — which we are told have not been completed and no legal agreement has been signed, as of yet.

“The Pressbox” also texted CHRB Chairman Dr. Gregory Ferraro on Sunday seeking comment.

At the time of posting, we had not received any comment.

Just a quick recap, for those of you following at home:

After the Santa Anita Derby in 2018, it was determined that the colt — Justify — had, in fact, tested positive for the drug scopolamine, a drug that is normally used to treat stomach or intestinal problems like nausea.

Apparently, five other horses — not trained by Baffert — also tested positive for the drug on that day in question. Those facts led to widespread speculation that the drug — which can be found in jimson weed, which grows in the wild — may have been accidentally mixed in feed products creating a contamination that no one was aware of or cognizant of, at the time. Some wondered if hay and alfalfa could have been included in that mix, as well.

Still, the testing lab utilized in the initial analysis at the University of California-Davis, received the first samples on April 10. The lab sent notice to the California Racing Board on April 18. But it wasn’t until April 26, four days before Justify was to be shipped to Kentucky, that Baffert received his notification.

According to a story written and published in the “New York Times” on Sept. 11, 2019, Baffert was alerted about the drug test just nine days before the Kentucky Derby. At that time, Baffert asked for a split sample to be sent for further testing and analysis.

The split sample was sent on May 1, and that result was not confirmed until May 8 — after Justify had won the Kentucky Derby. It was then — and only then — that Rich Baedeker — the Executive Director of the California Horse Racing Board — notified the Board members about the positive test result, according to the “Times” story.

The “Times” quoted Baedeker as saying:

“There was no way that we could have come up with an investigative report prior to the Kentucky Derby,” he added. “That’s impossible. Well, that’s not impossible, that would have been careless and reckless for us to tell an investigator what usually takes you two months, you have to get done in five days, eight days. We weren’t going to do that.”

The “Times” went on to report that on Aug. 23, 2018, Baedeker presented the Justify case to the individual members of the CHRB in a private, executive session — that is normally held for legal matters. The Board adjudicated the matter at that time by voting unanimously not to proceed with any case against Baffert or Justify.

No formal action was ever taken. And, since that time, the Board also moved to reduce the penalties for scopolamine violations. Those reductions include eliminating disqualification and purse forfeiture in place of possible fines and suspensions.

However, critics — including the author of the “Times” story — have argued, complained and questioned the ethics of the CHRB members at the time. They pointed to Chuck Winner, the chairman of the CHRB at the time, and who owned interest in horses trained by Baffert. They pointed at Madeline Auerbach, the board’s vice chairman, at the time, and commissioner Dennis Alfieri, who also owned horses and employed trainers and jockeys, too.

And, earlier this year, on Jan. 13, owner-trainer Mick Ruis joined the list of critics. He sued the CHRB alleging it intentionally failed to discharge its’ public duty when the board met and formally decided — unanimously, you might remember — not to take any official action and make no formal complaint.

Ruis — who had the complaint filed in Los Angels County Superior Court — trained and owned Bolt d’Oro, at the time. Bolt d’Oro ran second in the Santa Anita Derby. The complaint asked for a writ ordering the CHRB to set aside its’ decision to dismiss the case and to order the horse’s disqualification and redistribution of the purse in the $1 million race.

The owners of Justify earned $600,000 for the win. The owners of Bolt d’Oro earned $200,000 for running second.

That brings us to last week, when Vienna released this to Ray Paulick and the “Paulick Report:”

“Mick Ruis announced today that he has reached an agreement in principle with the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) regarding a settlement of pending litigation in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The preliminary agreement is intended to resolve claims against the CHRB for failure to hold a purse disqualification hearing related to the 2018 Santa Anita Derby in which the first place finisher, Justify, tested positive for the prohibited substance scopolamine. Members of the CHRB, the state agency charged with regulation of California horse racing, voted in favor of settlement at a recent closed session. Attorneys for the respective parties are finalizing the exact terms of the agreement and expect it to be completed in the coming days.

“The agreement would include a provision that the CHRB will file a complaint against the owners of Justify and conduct a purse disqualification hearing. The detection of the prohibited substance scopolamine in the official test collected from Justify following the running of the 2018 Santa Anita Derby was confirmed by a split sample test requested by Justify’s connections. CHRB rule 1859.5 requires forfeiture of purse and disqualification of a horse that tests positive for a Class 1 – 3 prohibited substance regardless of the trainer’s responsibility.”

Then comes this quote from Mick Ruis, which is rather interesting — indeed:

“I am pleased that the leadership of this newly constituted CHRB appointed by Governor Newsom has taken seriously the Governor’s intention to ‘hold the group accountable on matters of drugs, safety, and integrity.’ It is only fair that the current CHRB voted to finally have a hearing related to the Justify matter. This settlement would be a major step toward restoring public confidence in the CHRB,” said Mick Ruis, the owner of Bolt d’Oro, who finished second in the 2018 Santa Anita Derby.

The press release went on to read:

“The prior CHRB departed from its standard procedures when it refused to file a complaint following the split sample confirmation of scopolamine in Justify’s official sample. The prior CHRB swept the Justify matter under the rug by dismissing the matter in a closed session in August of 2018 where it remained until Joe Drape uncovered the scandal in an article published in the New York Times in September of 2019.

“This legal action was never just about the purse money, I wanted to stand up for what’s right and to make sure that every horseman, from the little guy to Bob Baffert, is treated fairly and equally” Ruis said. “I commend the current CHRB for reviewing this matter and look forward concluding negotiations regarding a public hearing.”

“Ruis is represented by attorneys Darrell Vienna and Carlo Fisco.

“It has been a pleasure to work with Mr. Ruis. He is an individual who truly believes and has proven that one man can make a difference,” said Vienna. “We look forward to presenting the agreement with the CHRB to the court so we can resolve the litigation.”

“Carlo Fisco added “This decision was a no-brainer for the CHRB,” added Fisco. “It’s very encouraging for racing in California to see this new board being able to make the obvious and positive move, a task that the old board found to be, for some unknown reason, too daunting.”

Does one find the Press Release to be overly praise-worthy of the CHRB — especially considering the personal relationship that did and does exist between the Vice Chairman and the legal team that now represents Ruis?

Interesting questions.

Just another twist in a story full of turns.

Stay tuned.