Links to Harness Game All Over Doping Indictments

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Sarah Andrew

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Jorge Navarro, among the 27 individuals indicted Monday by the District Attorney for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan for doping horses, had become the go-to trainer for many harness racing horsemen who dabbled in thoroughbred racing. Including Shancelot (Shanghai Bobby), who was owned by prominent harness breeders and owners Al and Michelle Crawford, Navarro trained a number of horses for people involved in the standardbred game. According to the indictment, Navarro's ties to several of those individuals involved far more than the typical client-trainer relationship.

Harness trainers Rick Dane Jr., Chris Oakes, Chris Marino and Nick Surick were among those indicted. Surick's name appears several times in the indictment as a central figure in Navarro's doping routine.

“In addition to his role in the Navarro Doping Program, at all times relevant to this Indictment, Nicholas Surick, the defendant, was a racehorse trainer who orchestrated a widespread scheme of covertly obtaining and administering adulterated and misbranded PEDs to the racehorses under his control, including 'red acid' among other substances,” the indictment reads. Red acid is described as a PED designed to reduce inflammation in the joints.

In a particularly disturbing portion of the indictment, the District Attorney's office reveals an intercepted conversation between Surick and another defendant, Michael Tannuzzo, in which Surick talks about disposing of horses that died under Navarro's care.

“You know how many f—ing horses [Navarro] killed and broke down that I made disappear,” Surick said “…You know how much trouble he could get in…if they found out…six horses we killed?”

Starting in 2011, Surick owned outright or co-owned a handful of horses that were trained by Navarro. So did Oakes.

Surick has trained 1,775 standardbred winners and had 367 victories in 2019. He has 53 wins at the current meet at Freehold Raceway, 42 more than the runner-up. He has seven wins at the Meadowlands this year.

In December, 2018 the New Jersey Racing Commission issued a full suspension to Surick's training license. The commission cited a “failure to cooperate with an ongoing investigation being conducted by the investigative staff of the New Jersey Racing Commission and for failure to appear for a hearing with the Board of Judges…” Eight days later and without an explanation from the NJRC, Surick's license was restored to good standing.

The indictment also claims that Surick used Viagra pills as a means to dope his horses, used a “bleeder drug, which can be used as a PED,” though there was no medical need for the drug, and also used the PED Epogen.

Surick, 31, was also the co-owner of the Thoroughbred Sassy Chub (Hey Chub) when the mare tested positive for dexamethasone after a race at Monmouth. Sassy Chub was trained by Aparna Battula, who was summarily suspended after she was determined to be in possession of 30 hypodermic needles and syringes and more than 80 vials of injectable substances.

On his Twitter feed, Surick describes himself as “self employed, entrepreneur, I try to train horses to run in circles really fast.”

Surick did not return phone calls from the TDN Monday.

Oakes is also a prominent harness trainer who has won 1,875 career races. The indictment names him as one of several people who “engaged in a corrupt scheme to manufacture, create, purchase, distribute, transport, sell, and administer a wide variety of misbranded and adulterated PEDs, as well as substances designed to mask the presence of PEDs from drug testing by racing and state officials.”

Following the announcement of the indictments, United States Trotting Association President Russell Williams released a statement, which read: “Having worked in the criminal justice system some years ago, I'm acutely aware of the presumption of innocence that applies from indictment through trial. At the same time, it's essential to the administration of justice and to the health of our industry for anyone with knowledge of possibly illegal activity to cooperate with law enforcement authorities. It is imperative that our sport is conducted fairly and with integrity.”

Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural has led the fight within the standardbred industry to combat cheating. He said Monday that Oakes and Marino had already been banned at the Meadowlands and that Surick and Dane would now be banned, as well.

“I think the FBI did a great job,” Gural said. “I commend them and the U.S. attorney for tackling this. I think it is a positive step forward. I think this will help. What I am hoping is that everybody joins forces and we get the feds to take this over. There's no question we need federal intervention because the current system doesn't work. Hopefully, this will get legislation in Congress over the finish line and the people who have been holding out to join in. That would be the best thing. Once the feds take over, I think they will do a good job.”

Crawford Farms, run by Michelle and Al Crawford, were not involved in the indictments and the Crawfords were quick to distance themselves from Navarro.

“We are disgusted,” Michelle Crawford said. “We are upset. I spend all my free time running around advocating for horse care and horse health and aftercare, so I am disgusted. On the phone right now to line up truckers to get our horses out of that barn. We're having problems reaching people but every one will be moved. They'll be gone as soon as they can. We have other phenomenal trainers and the horses will be dispersed to them.”

“You meet Jorge Navarro and he talks about how he loves his horses and how he wants his son to get into the business, how he worked 15 hours a day,” said her husband, Al. “That's the Jorge we knew. We would see him four or five times a year and that was when Shancelot raced, That's your experience with the individual. You don't really know him personally so what you get is what that person wants you to get, just like a Bernie Madoff. He seemed like a really nice person.”

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