By T. D. Thornton
This is one of those “guy walks into a bar…” jokes. Except the punch line isn't even remotely funny.
Imagine a baseball player walking into a sports bar located inside his team's home stadium after he's finished playing for the day. The player has a history of producing suspiciously off-the-charts home run numbers, has already served a suspension related to the prohibited use of pain killers, and has a separate drug abuse case currently under appeal.
The player and his entourage start watching another game in progress on the bar TV, get into a verbal beef with some nearby fans, and launch into a litany of profanity that devolves into brazen taunting about the use of “juice,” or performance- enhancing pharmaceuticals. Their one-sided jeering is coarse and clownish; in fact it's so immature that you have to leap to the cringing conclusion that it's all in mean-spirited jest, because no public sports figure would be so stupid as to apparently brag about illegal drug abuse when the subject hits so close to existing allegations.
Or would he?
The above analogy roughly fits the ongoing “conduct detrimental to racing” saga of five-time leading Monmouth Park trainer Jorge Navarro and his client, Randal Gindi, who owns Monster Racing Stables, which racked up an astounding 53% win percentage (10 for 19) at the just-concluded Monmouth meet. Last week they were each slapped with $5,000 fines by the Monmouth stewards after being covertly recorded on a smart-phone video verbally soiling themselves and the sport that keeps them in business.
This led to the subsequent barring of Navarro's entries in Indiana and Maryland. But the embattled trainer also received public affirmation from officials in New York and New Jersey that his future entries would be accepted so long as his license remains in valid standing.
On the outside chance you haven't already wasted 32 seconds of your life viewing the anonymously recorded video that is garnering disturbingly wide circulation via the internet, you can see their Aug. 4 antics for yourself here. Gindi stars as the bespectacled gent in the black t-shirt uttering the bulk of the shameful tirade; Navarro, standing nearby, plays a supporting but significant role as the enabler of Gindi's bullying (be forewarned the YouTube clip contains potty-mouth expletives).
What do you think the reaction of Major League Baseball authorities would be if a ballplayer openly boasted about illegal drugging and betting with bookmakers and those comments got widespread play online? I'm thinking the fines would be far north of $5,000 and a stiff suspension would also be in order, although that possibility still exists for Navarro and Gindi.
Their initial fines represent the maximum the Monmouth stewards are allowed to impose, and the stewards did, in fact, recommend that the New Jersey Racing Commission (NJRC) consider higher amounts when the commission meets Sept. 20.
In a curious scheduling juxtaposition, the Navarro/Gindi agenda item to adjudicate their “juice” comments on Wednesday will come right after the NJRC will consider a petition filed by the Meadowlands harness track to adopt a new rule that would bar a horse for 90 or more days if it tests positive for certain substances.
Such a New Jersey measure would presumably be of interest to the Monmouth-based Navarro, a 27% lifetime winning trainer whose rap sheet includes a 60-day Florida suspension in 2013 for six flunixin positives. He is also currently fighting a Florida positive for cocaine in a post-race equine test that occurred earlier this year.
Navarro and Gindi, in various published reports, have taken responsibility for their actions and apologized for making the crude remarks, which they explained were uttered in exaggerated retaliation to a Monmouth patron who earlier that year had accused them of doping horses to attain such lofty win percentages.
Yet even if they produce their own video highlighting how sorry they are, it's unlikely to match the viewership attained by the original impromptu clip that caused their trouble. Bad publicity like that spreads fast and is not easily erased.
And what to make of the regulatory chain of events that unfolded in the wake of Navarro and Gindi's unprofessional conduct? The “juice” video first surfaced online on Aug. 11, one week after the incident occurred, and it was widely discussed in the ensuing weeks on various racing-related internet message boards and on multiple social media outlets.
Yet the Monmouth stewards held off until Sept. 6 to conduct a hearing on the matter. And by releasing their rulings to coincide with the end of the meet four days later, the entire process could be interpreted as a pass-off to the higher commission-level authority while the stewards scooted out the door at the end of the season.
In addition, by electing not to impose any sort of suspension on Navarro at an earlier date, the stewards made it possible for the Monmouth racing office to reap the benefit of the meet-leading trainer's strong and steady flow of entries. During the 2017 Monmouth season, Navarro started 158 horses. His next closest competitor saddled 94.
The stewards at Indiana Grand, followed by The Stronach Group executives who oversee Laurel Park, relied on a “case still pending” clause to temporarily halt Navarro from running horses in stakes races at their tracks (Navarro's Indiana shipper was scratched after already being entered; Laurel officials gave Navarro notice prior to entering that he was barred pending his NJRC hearing). This middle-ground stance was effective at keeping the week's most toxic news story away from Indiana Grand and Laurel. Yet it was not as proactive as taking an outright position that horsemen who publicly and profanely boast about cheating are not welcome at those tracks.
And even though Laurel officials claimed all parties were acting in good faith when they allowed a last-minute trainer transfer from Navarro to Claudio Gonzalez that permitted the Monmouth-based Chublicious (Hey Chub) to enter the GIII De Francis Memorial Dash, the public-perception fog of what actually constitutes a “paper trainer” hardly dissipated when Chublicious–the longest shot in a scratch-depleted field of four–won the $250,000 stakes.
Navarro is not without supporters willing to look past his sophomoric comments. And he is hardly the first trainer ever to utter words within a drinking establishment that he would later regret. He just happens to be the most notorious racing-industry example of someone in this age of constant surveillance to be immortalized on digital video apparently blustering about illegal, unethical practices.
Dennis Drazin, an advisor to the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which leases Monmouth, told the Asbury Park Press last week that “Navarro is welcome back at Monmouth Park next year. We are worried about the integrity of Monmouth Park, but we don't think this warrants us telling him not come back next year.”
Daily Racing Form reported last Thursday that Steve Lewandowski, the steward for the New York State Gaming Commission (NYSGC), said he was okay with Navarro entering horses at New York Racing Association (NYRA) tracks so long as his license was in good standing.
Yet The Jockey Club issued a press release late Friday afternoon that took a contrary tone. Jim Edwards, The Jockey Club-appointed steward at NYRA tracks, was quoted as saying Navarro's entries should not be accepted at New York tracks until his juice-comments case is fully adjudicated in New Jersey. In support of this position, the release further cited Section 4002.12 of the NYSGC rules, which allows for wide-ranging racetrack exclusion when a person “has been involved in any action detrimental to the best interests of racing.”
When the NJRC meets on Wednesday, it could increase the stewards' fines imposed upon Navarro and Gindi. Or it could opt for another way to send a strong message that if licensees invite additional scrutiny by mouthing off in public, they shouldn't be surprised when additional layers of regulation descend upon them like a clamp.
One way to achieve this deterrent would be to let the $5,000 fines stand, but to additionally require that if Navarro and Gindi want to race in New Jersey next season, those two violators of common sense will have to foot the bill for out-of-competition testing of their horses and enhanced security surveillance within Navarro's barn for the duration of the 2018 meet.
Racing commissions can and already do enforce similar pay-to-play security measures. We most often see this with licensees who have substance abuse problems and are required to pay for their own personal drug screenings as a condition of their licensure.
Instead of fining Navarro and Gindi more money that goes into some general fund somewhere, let that money instead be directly applied to solving the drug-perception problem they created.
The sport is already paying–in terms of a damaged reputation–for the wave of bad publicity Navarro and Gindi set in motion with their outrageous comments about juicing. The industry shouldn't have to pay for the continued cleansing of their mess.