By T. D. Thornton
The barred trainer Jorge Navarro cut a deal with federal prosecutors Wednesday in which he pled guilty to one count in a years-long Thoroughbred doping conspiracy in exchange for having a similar second count against him dismissed.
Navarro now faces a maximum prison term of five years when he gets sentenced Dec. 17.
In addition, Navarro on Aug. 11 agreed to pay $25,860,514 in restitution to a list of victims whose identities won't be divulged until the government's final prosecutorial paperwork is due one week before the sentencing. Navarro admitted in court that amount is based on ill-gotten gains from the purse winnings of his trainees.
Incredibly, that massive dollar amount equates to nearly 75% of all the purse winnings Navarro's horses amassed during his 15-year training career.
Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil of United States District Court (Southern District of New York) also warned the 46-year-old citizen of Panama and current Ocala, Florida, resident that he could face deportation or other adverse immigration-related consequences as the result of his conviction.
Separately, Navarro's deal also includes a fine of $70,000 payable to the government that is due at the time of his sentencing.
Speaking in open court via video conference, Navarro became the second guilty-pleading conspirator within eight days to specifically implicate fellow defendant and ruled-off trainer Jason Servis, for whom Navarro said he procured an “imported, misbranded bronchodilator” intended be used as a performance-enhancing drug [PED] to help horses run faster.
“I confirm that approximately 2016 through Mar. 9, 2020, I administered, and, at times, directed [others] working under my direction to administer non-FDA-approved, misbranded, adulterated drugs to increase performance of racehorses under my custody and care,” Navarro said, reading from a prepared statement when Vyskocil asked him to describe in detail exactly what he did to be guilty of the conspiracy charge.
“[Drugs] were administered to horses without a valid prescription,” Navarro said. “The drugs [were] blood-building substances, vasodilators, and imported, misbranded bronchodilators, 'bleeder' pills, and SGF-1000.”
Navarro further told the court he received some of these drugs from Panama and the Dominican Republic, and that he sometimes shipped these illicit substances between his home in Florida to his New Jersey residence. Navarro admitted that he conspired with veterinarians to produce fake bills that hid what these drugs actually were from horse owners and also to deceive and defraud track officials and regulators.
“At the time you did what you just outlined for me, did you know that what you were doing was wrong and illegal?” Vyskocil asked.
“Yes, your honor,” Navarro replied.
Vyskocil read into the record the names of some of Navarro's most prominent trainees and asked him to confirm if those Thoroughbreds were among the horses to whom he administered PEDs.
“X Y Jet, War Story, Shancelot, Sharp Azteca and Nanoosh. Is that, in fact, true and accurate, Mr. Navarro?” the judge asked.
“Yes, your honor,” Navarro replied.
Vyskocil said that because some of Navarro's doping conspiracy took place outside of America and was carried out by “sophisticated means” that involved five or more participants and the use of “special skills” to breach public trust, those “enhancements” to sentencing guidelines will be factored in when she determines his sentence.
The Sixth to Flip
Navarro is now the sixth of 28 defendants named in the original indictment to plead guilty to charges in the federal government's prosecution of an alleged “corrupt scheme” to manufacture, mislabel, rebrand, distribute, and administer PEDs to racehorses all across America and in international races.
Indictments were unsealed to coincide with a blitz of coordinated Federal Bureau of Investigation arrests nationwide on Mar. 9, 2020. All of the defendants initially pled not guilty.
The veterinarian Scott Robinson switched his plea to guilty last year for conspiring to unlawfully distribute adulterated and misbranded drugs for the purpose of doping racehorses. In March 2021 he was sentenced to 18 months in prison and had to forfeit $3.8 million in profits.
Scott Mangini, a de-licensed pharmacist and Robinson's business partner, flipped his plea to guilty in April for conspiring to unlawfully distribute adulterated and misbranded drugs with the intent to defraud and mislead. The government contended that Mangini sold millions of dollars worth of “blood builders.” He is to be sentenced Sept. 10.
Sarah Izhaki switched to a guilty plea for selling misbranded versions of Epogen. In June she was sentenced to time already served plus three years of supervised release. Vyskocil said she imposed a relatively lenient punishment due to extenuating circumstances that included Izhaki's poor health.
Michael Kegley Jr., an independent contractor for the Kentucky-based company MediVet Equine, pled guilty in July to one count of drug adulteration and misbranding while admitting that one of those drugs was SGF-1000. He is to be sentenced Nov. 22.
Kristian Rhein, a suspended veterinarian formerly based at Belmont Park, on Aug. 3 pled guilty to one count of drug adulteration and misbranding for use in the covert doping of Thoroughbreds. As part of a plea bargain, Rhein has agreed forfeit $1.02 million in profits directly traceable to his offense, plus pay $729,716 in restitution. He is to be sentenced Nov. 22.
At last week's hearing, Rhein directly implicated five others, most notably Servis, who was his regular client.
The original indictment detailed how in intercepted phone calls and texts between Navarro and Servis, the two trainers allegedly coordinated the procurement of PEDs and purportedly warned each other about the presence of regulators at Gulfstream Park, where the two were stabled during winter meets.
Five separate criminal counts were included within the government's series of indictments. Count One has been referred to in court as the “Navarro Conspiracy,” and this is the one to which Navarro pleaded guilty on Wednesday. The charge was conspiring with others to administer non-FDA-approved misbranded and adulterated drugs, including PEDs that Navarro believed would be untestable and undetectable by racing authorities.
Count Three alleges a similar conspiracy organized by Servis, who is accused of doping nearly all of the racehorses under his control during the 2010s decade, including the disqualified 2019 GI Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security. As part of Navarro's plea bargain, the charges against him within this “Servis Conspiracy” are the ones that the government has agreed to drop at the time of Navarro's sentencing.
In a press release issued after Navarro entered his guilty plea, U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said that Rhein and Navarro “represent the supply side and the customer side of the market in performance enhancing substances that have corrupted much of the horse racing industry. As he admitted [Wednesday], Navarro, a licensed trainer and the purported 'winner' of major races across the world, was in fact a reckless fraudster whose veneer of success relied on the systematic abuse of the animals under his control.”
Rise, Suspicion, and Fall
Navarro's family came to the United States from Panama City in 1988 and settled in Michigan. He completed high school and began hotwalking horses at Detroit Race Course, then later worked his way up on the backstretches of Florida tracks.
Navarro obtained a trainer's license 2008, and within five years was rocketing to the top of the standings at Monmouth Park and on the Florida circuit. His stable steadily grew to over 75 horses and included multiple graded stakes winners.
Navarro's early career contained only several comparatively minor equine drug offenses.
But his well-above-average winning percentage that hovered around 28% in tandem with his reputation as a conditioner who could get horses to improve dramatically soon led to accusations among rival trainers and horseplayers that he was “juicing” horses with PEDs.
Navarro excelled with sprinters and middle distance horses. Measured by the Beyer Speed Figure scale, a number of his elite-level trainees ran eye-popping numbers that seemed way too good to be true without pharmaceutical enhancement.
MGSW Sharp Azteca ran Beyers of 112 and 115 in 2017. In 2019, Shancelot unleashed a 121 Beyer in a 12 1/2-length romp in a Saratoga Race Course stakes-a speed figure that represented the highest Beyer by any 3-year-old sprinter in the three-decade published history of those numbers.
But by that time, Navarro was already taking heat from regulators and track officials.
In 2013, Navarro served a 60-day suspension in for multiple flunixin positives in Florida, some of which were 300 times above the permitted for the painkiller.
In August of 2017, Monmouth's stewards imposed a $5,000 “conduct detrimental to racing” fine after Navarro and one of his clients, a licensed owner, were captured on a smartphone video at a Monmouth clubhouse bar making coarse comments that brazenly referenced the use of “juice” and the cashing of a big bet with illegal bookmakers.
Two months later, in October 2017, New Jersey officials fined Navarro $2,500 after one of his trainees tested positive for cocaine and morphine following a Monmouth win. He also tried to fight a Florida positive for cocaine in a post-race equine test earlier that same year.
Around roughly the same time, Indiana racing officials told Navarro he would not be issued a training license in that state. Laurel Park officials barred his entries just prior to the running of that fall's premier sprint stakes, in which Navarro had planned to enter three horses.
Among the wiretapped interceptions the feds said they could have used as evidence against Navarro had his case gone to trial, one conversation allegedly involved Navarro admitting to dosing elite-level sprinter X Y Jet “with 50 injections [and] through the mouth” before a big win in the Mar. 30, 2019 G1 Golden Shaheen in Dubai.
Ten months later, in January 2020, X Y Jet died suddenly, allegedly from cardiac distress that has never been fully documented or explained.
The press release issued by federal prosecutors on Wednesday specifically pointed out that Navarro's “preferred PEDs” included blood-building drugs, “which, when administered before intense physical exertion, can lead to cardiac issues or death.”