DOJ indicts 27 for doping in horse racing scandal

Drugging racehorses

The most recent horse racing scandal sounds like a plot out of a Dick Francis novel: 27 professionals in the horse racing industry including Jason Servis, who trains Maximum Security, and trainer Jorge Navarro, were indicted today on federal charges for using performance-enhancing drugs on racehorses. You can read the full indictment here.

The cast of characters involved includes trainers, assistant trainers, veterinarians, pharmacists and drug distributors. The drugs in question were (or were marketed as) blocking agents, masking agents, EPO agents, and products similar to clenbuterol and Viagra. The drugging was widespread and insidious with masking agents employed to prevent horses from testing positive for drugs.

The most prominent horse involved is Maximum Security — who won last year’s Kentucky Derby, only to be disqualified for interference, and last week won the $20 million Saudi Cup.

Whether or not that win will be allowed to stand is just one of the questions raised by this report along with, how did such an organized effort escape scrutiny for so long and is this just the tip of the iceberg.

Questions about Navarro and Servis’ WPS (win-place-show) percentages have raised eyebrows in the past. Comments on Racing sites such as The Paulick Report suggest that these trainers were winning too much.

One commenter wrote:

Servis has had an inexplicable magic touch in recent years. No way he could have been that much better than his peers but no one could find how he was juicing.

Another said:

Servis and Navarro had win percentages that were 40% – 50% during some periods. I knew they were using something that probably couldn’t be detected by normal tests, but didn’t know what.

Certainly, Servis’ strategy with Maximum Security was, well different. The first race he entered the colt in was a $16,000 claiming race. Yup, anyone could have bought MS for a mere $16K a 2-year old. Not exactly where you’d run a horse that you think might win the Kentucky Derby

When pressed on the decision, Servis said to Dave Grening of the Daily Racing Form: “It’s not like I … waved a magic wand on him and won a stake.” Not unless that magic wand looked a whole lot like a syringe.

The scale of the fraud, even from only these two trainers is significant. From 2018 to February 2020, Navarro entered horses in approximately 1,480 races. He is reputed to have administered PED himself and to have ordered others to do so. His preferred PEDs were “blood building” drugs, including one called “monkey”, which boost a horse’s red blood cell count to stimulate endurance and improve recovery.

But there is a downside. Combined with intense physical exercise, the drug thickens a horse’s blood and puts additional strain on his heart, which can lead to cardiac issues or death. Kind of like what happened to one of Navarro’s top runners, XY Jet, who died on January 8th from an apparent heart attack after a routine morning gallop. XY Jet’s death is now under investigation as the indictment claims that Navarro and others administered several PEDs designed to evade drug tests prior to the gelding’s victories in a Feb. 13, 2019 allowance optional claiming race at Gulfstream Park, and the March 30, 2019 Dubai Golden Shaheen. X Y Jet won both races, winning $2.5 million in the latter.

From 2018 to February 2020, Servis entered horses in approximately 1,082 races, including the Kentucky Derby. His favorite PED appears to have been SGF-1000, which he gave to virtually all of the racehorses under his control.

On a March 2019 phone call with Navarro, Servis said “I’ve been using it [SGF-1000] on everything almost” and Navarro stated he had “more than 12 horses” on SGF-1000 before saying “I don’t want to talk about this [censored] on the phone.”

The beauty of SGF-1000 is that there is no test for the drug in the US. When Servis gave Maximum Security a shot of the drug before the Pegasus Stakes, where he placed second, he consulted veterinarian Kristian Rhein, who assured him that at worst, the drug might appear as a false positive for Dexamthasone, or dex. Servis then had Rhein alter Maximum Security’s medical records to make it appear as though the horse had been prescribed dex, which is commonly used to treat allergic reactions.

In fact, SGF-1000 contains growth factors that will: stimulate the process of sprouting new blood vessels, regenerate damaged livers so a horse is able to produce more energy, accelerate wound healing, and possesses potent anabolic effects on bone growth.

In addition to “monkey” and SGF-1000, court papers detail a variety of other PEDs designed to make horses run faster and mask their pain, with names including “red acid,” “bleeder” and “frozen pain.”

One veterinarian, Louis Grasso allegedly distributed actual cobra venom to be used as a painkiller, and court papers include a color photo of the snake juice in a tiny glass jar with a lime green label that says “PURE TOXIN.”

Grasso also distributed a variety of “bronchodilators” referred to as “Bronk” or “breather” drugs, which are used in part to increase a horse’s oxygen intake and reduce fatigue, the indictment says.

Still other defendants created their own, custom, undetectable drugs that were administered by “drenching” a process whereby the drugs are poured down a tube in the horse’s nose, directly into its stomach. Also available were masking agents, such as “the Devil”, designed to hide illegal drugs from testing.

While the trainers were lining their pockets, the real losers here were the horses. And the fans who bet on them.

“What actually happened to the horses amounted to nothing less than abuse,” said William F. Sweeney Jr., assistant director-in-charge for the New York office of the FBI at a press conference Monday. “They experienced cardiac issues, overexertion leading to leg fractures, increased risk of injury, and in some cases death. Conversely, the human beings involved in the scheme continued to line their purses as they continued to manipulate this multi-billion-dollar horse racing industry across the globe. People are rightfully disturbed by the mistreatment of animals who have absolutely no means of defense. Today’s arrest should put anyone who chooses to follow in the footsteps of those charged today in this doping scheme on alert.” (The Paulick Report)

The indictment also includes this intercepted text message from indicted trainer Nicholas Surick, referring to Navarro: “You know how many [expletive] horses he [expletive] killed and broke down that I made disappear? You know how much trouble he could get in … if they found out … the six horses we killed?”

Yes, let’s see them get into a world of trouble now. And hope that the next targets are higher up on the food chain. Perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at some of the other trainers with WPS rates higher than 50%. If horse racing is going to continue, it needs to be cleaned up. Yesterday.

5 thoughts on “DOJ indicts 27 for doping in horse racing scandal

  1. Sad to say, this doesn’t surprise me…but it damn sure pisses me off.
    Your phrase ‘not unless that magic wand looked a whole like a syringe’ nails it.
    What’s even sadder is how much time and effort was put into finding “masking agents’…something I’d never heard of (well, natch..I don’t race TB’s and I don’t inject anything into one) and even worse, finding a veterinarian(s) willing to doctor the books to make it look legit. Thank you for this article. I hope to see Servis and Navarro tied up and given lots of doses of their ‘monkey’ and other stuff.

  2. Dick Francis got there first. But it sounds like his job is nigh-eternal. I don’t want to encourage it, yet the evolution of the criminal brain is nothing short of astounding.

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