by Alan Carasso and Bill Finley
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York unsealed indictments against Thoroughbred veterinarians and trainers, including Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro Monday in Manhattan. A total of 27 defendants were named in four separate indictments, alleging that the two trainers and 25 others engaged in a “widespread, corrupt scheme by racehorse trainers, veterinarians, PED distributors and others to manufacture, distribute, and receive adulterated and misbranded PEDs and to secretly administer those PEDs to racehorses under scheme participants' control.” The indictment that includes Servis and Navarro can be downloaded here.
The indictments allege that these individuals sought to improve the performance of their racehorses at home and abroad, in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio, Kentucky and the United Arab Emirates. The indictment explains that by failing to abide by federal statutes and regulations, drugs of an unknown composition were dispensed by non-veterinarians (i.e. racehorse trainers) using methods that could be harmful to the animal and, in extreme cases, cause death; and further endangered the welfare of the animals by masking the ability to feel pain, causing them to over-exert themselves, leading to breakdowns, sometimes catastrophic.
“Today's unsealing of four indictments for widespread doping of racehorses is the largest ever of its kind from the Department of Justice,” said Geoffrey S. Berman, Manhattan U.S. Attorney. “These defendants engaged in this conduct not for the love of the sport, and certainly not out of concern for the horses, but for money. And it was the racehorses that paid the price for the defendants' greed. The care and respect due to the animals competing, as well as the integrity of racing, are matters of deep concern to the people of this District and to this Office.”
“These men allegedly saw the $100-billion dollar global horse racing industry as their way to get rich at the expense of the animals that were doing all the hard work,” added FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney, Jr. “Our investigation reveals the cruelty and inhumane treatment these horses suffered all to win a race. The FBI New York Joint Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force worked along with our law enforcement partners at the New York State Police, FDA, and DEA to stop this ring of criminals from abusing helpless animals simply so they could cheat the odds and rake in millions of dollars.”
The indictment lays out four types of PEDs that are in question.
1) Erythropoietin (Epogen, epo)-used to boost red blood cell counts to enhance endurance and expedite race recovery, often referred to as 'BB3' and 'monkey.' Blood builders, when combined with intense physical activity, can thicken the blood and possibly lead to cardiac issues or death;
2) SGF-1000-see addtional information below;
3) Customized analgesics-commonly referred to as 'pain shots' or joint blocks, and contain various pain-relieving substances that can mask underlying physical issues and can lead to catastrophic events;
4) “Red Acid”-term used by the defendants to refer to PEDs specifically aimed at reducing swelling in joints and can also mask underlying problems.
The 'Navarro Doping Program'…
Navarro is alleged to have “orchestrated a widespread scheme of covertly obtaining and administering various adulterated and misbranded PEDs to the racehorses under his control. [Navarro] and his co-conspirators concealed the purchase and administration of adulterated and misbranded PEDs from federal and state government agencies, racing officials, the betting public and others.
Navarro is said to have paid co-defendant Seth Fishman–according to the indictment, a licensed veterinarian–'tens of thousands' of dollars from January 2017 through at least April 2019 to purchase PEDs, including 'BB3'; 'ITP Plus,' a custom-made PED capable of increasing the amount of oxygen in body tissues; 'VO2 Max,' an adulterated and misbranded PED that aids a horse's respiration; and a customized analgesic PED referred to as the 'Frozen Pain' shot.
Defendant Nicholas Surick, a Standardbred trainer whose own history includes investigations by the New York State Gaming Commission for glaucine positives as well as a ban from the Meadowlands in 2018, is named in the indictment as the supplier to Navarro of the 'red acid' in addition to a shockwave machine. The indictment includes an excerpt of a phone call between Surick and defendant Michael Tannuzzo, in which Surick stated, in part, among other things: “You know how many f–king horses he [Navarro] f–king 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?”
The 'Doping of X Y Jet…
A subsection of the indictment is devoted to the Navarro-trained X Y Jet (Kantharos), who died from an apparent heart attack this past January. The indictment sets out that Navarro treated X Y Jet with PEDs prior to a Gulfstream allowance victory in February 2019 and also prior to his victory in the G1 Dubai Golden Shaheen the following month.
Prior to the Gulfstream allowance success, Navarro is said to have requested 'a blocker' from Midlantic-based conditioner Marcos Zulueta, specifying that it was meant to be administered to X Y Jet. Zulueta obliged and sent the PED via overnight shipment to Florida.
While in Dubai on Mar. 22, 2019, Navarro–according to the indictment–“personally administered various adulterated and misbranded PEDs to X Y Jet, including one referred to as 'monkey.' The indictment says that Fishman texted his congratulations in the days following the Golden Shaheen to which Navarro allegedly replied: “Thank u boss, u are a big part of it.”
In a separate phone conversation following the Golden Shaheen, Navarro discussed with Zulueta the administration of the 'monkey' leading up to and even on the day of the race in Dubai. “I gave it to him through 50 injections. I gave it to him through the mouth.”
Zulueta was the listed trainer for three runners during the Monday program at Parx, but the horses were withdrawn. DRF reported later Monday that horses trained by Servis and Navarro will be scratched from Gulfstream races Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
In laying out other specific overt acts undertaken by Navarro, the indictment says that co-defendant Christopher Oakes offered to Navarro in January 2019 a PED created by Oakes and designed to avoid PED testing. “Zero chance you get caught,” Oakes stated and agreed to deliver the substance to Navarro. The indictment includes photographs of the substances allegedly procured and used by Navarro.
The details of a phone conversation between Navarro and “operators of a racing stable in California, for whom Navarro is a trainer” were also released. Discussing the horse Nanoosh, one of the operators on the call was quoted as questioning whether Navarro was “giving them [the operator's horses] all the s–t” asking later, “Is this horse jacked out? Is he on f–ing pills or are we just f–king-.” Navarro is alleged to have replied “Everything. He gets everything.” Individual 1 cuts short the discussion, saying, “You don't have to tell me on the phone,” according to the indictment. In his most recent start last July 1 at Parx, the registered owners of Nanoosh were Rockingham Ranch, Zayat Stables LLC and David L. Bernsen.
The Servis Doping Program…
Servis is alleged to have made use of a specific performance-enhancing drug called SGF-1000 and is alleged to have given that drug “to virtually all of the racehorses under his control.” He is also accused of falsifying veterinary bills to conceal the administration of SGF-1000 and using fake prescriptions.
According to the indictment, SGF-1000 is a customized PED purportedly containing 'growth factors,' including fibroblast growth factor and hepatocyte growth factor, which are intended to promote tissue repair and increase a racehorse's stamina and endurance beyond its natural capability.
In an intercepted phone conversation between Servis and Navarro Mar. 5, 2019, the indictment states that Servis recommended SGF-1000 to Navarro, saying, “I've been using it on everything, almost.” Navarro retorted that he “got more than 12 horses on” SGF-1000, but ended the call a short time later, saying, “Jay, we'll sit down and talk about this s-it. I don't want to talk about this s-it on the phone, OK?”
On June 5, 2019, New Jersey regulators subjected would-be GI Kentucky Derby winner and recent Saudi Cup winner Maximum Security (New Year's Day) to PED testing, a short time after receiving a shot of SGF-1000. The testing occurred just less than two weeks ahead of the Pegasus S., in which he finished runner-up. The indictment alleges that following the test, Servis reached out to co-defendant Kristian Rhein, a veterinarian who maintains a practice at Belmont Park, who insured the trainer that the colt would not test positive. “[t]hey don't even have a test for it in America,” Rhein said in an intercepted phone call. “There's no test for it in America.” Rhein said the presence of SGF-1000 could return a false positive for 'Dex.' The indictment states that the same day, Servis received a promise from another veterinarian who agreed to falsify records to make it appear the horse was treated with 'Dex' and not the illegal SGF-1000.
Also implicated were Alexander Chan, a veterinarian, who is alleged to have administered PEDs at the direction of Servis; and Michael Kegley, Jr., founder of the Kentucky-based Medivet Equine, who is said to have conspired with the trainers to ship mislabeled PEDs across state lines. The indictment states that in a phone conversation intercepted at the direction of law enforcement, Kegley, Jr. “acknowledged the illegal nature of his actions,” going so far as to say that racehorse trainers in this country could face felony charges for doping horses.
The indictment alleges that on Feb. 18, 2019, Servis alerted Navarro via text of the presence of a racing official in the barn area where both trainers allegedly stored PEDs. On the same day, in another intercepted call, Navarro told co-defendant Michael Tannuzzo, “He would have caught our asses f-king pumping and pumping and fuming every f-ing horse [that runs today].”
Reached for comment by Horse Racing Nation, Ben Glass, racing manager to Gary and Mary West, said he would wait to hear Servis's side of the story before taking any action.
Obstruction Charges Against Surick…
While federal guidelines set the maximum sentence for the majority of the defendants at five years in prison, the two most serious and potentially most penal charges–obstruction–have been filed against Surick. Between December 2018 and February 2019, Surick is accused of instructing others to make false statements and to falsify documents as to the whereabouts of the racehorse Northern Virgin, which Surick understood to be the subject of scrutiny for PED administration. During the same period of time, Surick is alleged to have “altered, destroyed, mutilated and concealed a record, document and other object” with the intent to “impair the object's integrity and availability for use in an official proceeding.” These included the falsification and destruction of veterinary bills and other records. Surick has been ordered to forfeit to the United States “any and all property, real and personal, that constitutes or is derived from proceeds…including, but not limited to a sum of money in United States currency representing the amount of proceeds traceable to the commission of said offenses.”
Thoroughbred Racing Reacts…
Officials at The Jockey Club issued a statement in full support of Monday's raids and indictments, saying, “it will be critical to the future of the sport that the reforms that are so badly needed are pressed forward by all segments of the industry–by everyone truly interested in clean competition and the safety and welfare of horse and rider.”
It continues, “Equine doping has long been a concern in racing circles, but one that has been difficult to investigate or prosecute effectively because the sport's regulatory oversight has been diffused, and often lax, across more than 30 separate state regulatory and enforcement agencies. Most people in the sport have suspected that some level of doping occurs, but evidence has been mostly third hand and circumstantial, and real information was needed to define the problem and craft a path to a solution.”
Alex Waldrop, CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said: “There is no place in our sport for individuals who treat horses with disregard for their well-being or who undermine the integrity of our competition for personal gain. We support the effort to bring these charges to light and are hopeful that their swift adjudication will help assure other horse racing participants and the public at large that our sport will not condone or tolerate the behavior alleged in the indictments.”
The National HBPA added in a statement, “The news today of the indictment returned against racehorse trainers, veterinarians and others involved is extremely troubling. The National HBPA focus has always been, and remains, the health and safety of the horse, the jockey and of all individuals coming into contact with the horse, and we strongly oppose the behavior alleged in this indictment. We firmly believe in striving for the highest standards of horsemanship, and our industry strongly believes that anyone participating in the types of activities alleged in this indictment should be severely punished.”
For Michael Dubb, one of Servis's biggest clients, the news was still just sinking in late Monday.
“I am trying to process it all. I need to understand it better before I make any comment. I will. I am trying to understand it before I say anything,” Dubb said.
The Stronach Group, operators of the facilities that were raided Monday morning, released a statement saying in part, “The Stronach Group complied fully with the search warrants that were executed by federal authorities this morning. The warrants issued were specific only to the barns and stalls that were occupied by the individuals charged today. The Stronach Group is not included in the charges. The Stronach Group is committed to achieving the highest level of horse care and safety standards in Thoroughbred racing … There is no room in our sport for anyone who does not prioritize the health and well-being of horses and riders. As this matter is under federal investigation, we will not be commenting further at this time.”
The New York Racing Association and the Woodbine Entertainment Group issued statements in the aftermath of the indictments.
“There is absolutely no place in our sport for those would administer illegal or banned substances to racehorses under their care,” said NYRA Spokesperson Pat McKenna. “The New York Racing Association is committed to preserving and protecting the integrity of the sport and the safety of the equine and human athletes who compete at our tracks. We will continue to work closely with the New York State Gaming Commission and our industry partners across the country to advance meaningful reforms that protect the future of thoroughbred horse racing.”
WEG's Jim Lawson said: “While today's news is very disappointing, it's a necessary development and further evidence that horse racing requires a higher level of coordinated regulation across all North American jurisdictions. It's also a strong statement that the use of performance-enhancing drugs will not be tolerated. Hopefully this permeates through the industry and changes the culture at all levels of horse racing. While Woodbine Entertainment was not specifically involved in this investigation, we are extremely supportive of all efforts to eradicate cheating and the use of PEDs in our sport. Thank you to everyone who contributed to this investigation. Even though the vast majority of trainers do not use PEDs, it's important that we all work together for the betterment of horse racing and the welfare of our horses.”
The Water Hay Oats Alliance, an organization formed to stop drugs in racing, chimed in by saying in part, “While many outside of horse racing will decry today's news as another black mark against the sport, WHOA members look upon this revelation as a step in the right direction to root out those in the sport who would take advantage of horses for their own selfish gain, as well as cheating their fellow trainers, owners and the wagering public.”
Clients of Bradley Weisbord's BSW Bloodstock have raced horses with Servis, and Weisbord issued the following statement Monday.
“Today, Jason Servis, a trainer who we have employed since 2018, was indicted and accused of covertly obtaining and administering adulterated and misbranded performance enhancing drugs to racehorses under his care while evading PED prohibitions and deceiving regulators and horse racing authorities. This news is not only shocking and deeply upsetting, but, above all, greatly disappointing. We manage over 350 horses on the racetrack, and 10 horses are under the care of Jason Servis. Each of these horses will be immediately removed from his care.”
The TDN has also reached out to owners Gary West and Rockingham Ranch principle Gary Hartunian for comment. Dennis Drazin, the CEO of Darby Devlopment–operator of Monmouth Park–declined comment.
Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said in a statement: “This sweeping federal investigation has exposed that illegal doping is still ubiquitous in horse racing, including at the highest levels. These crimes cheat bettors of billions of dollars and are egregiously cruel to horses, resulting in rampant injuries, pain, and deaths, such as those cited in the indictment. PETA is calling for a permanent ban from racing of all guilty trainers and veterinarians as well as any other conspirators and for criminal charges of cruelty to animals to be added forthwith.”