By Robert Gearty
A New York federal jury heard opening statements Jan. 20 as the horse doping conspiracy trial of Dr. Seth Fishman and Lisa Giannelli got underway.
Prosecutor Anden Chow began by telling jurors that the defendants had operated a black market drug conspiracy for two decades.
He said Fishman and Giannelli created hundreds of drugs that were used to secretly dope race horses.
The drugs they produced were undetectable in post-racing testing, Chow said, so that trainers who were their customers could increase their chances of winning races by committing fraud.
“For two decades they did their best to avoid getting caught,” the prosecutor said. “They were successful until today.”
Fishman and Giannelli went on trial on charges of conspiring to misbrand and adulterate drugs, including performance-enhancing drugs used to dope horses at tracks across the country.
The opening statements came after a jury of eight women and four men was seated in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
Fishman and Giannelli were among more than two dozen trainers, veterinarians, and others busted in 2020 in what prosecutors say is the most far-reaching prosecution of racehorse doping in U.S. Justice Department history. Among those charged was prominent trainer Jason Servis whose Maximum Security finished first in the 2019 GI Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve but was disqualified for interference. Servis has maintained a not-guilty plea and is awaiting trial.
Fishman and Giannelli listened attentively as Chow and their attorneys addressed the jury. Each is free on $100,000 bail.
Chow was the first to address the jury.
He said that the world of horse racing was a highly lucrative business, making it tempting for some to dope horses to get an edge. He said to guard against this, regulators established rules on what substances can be administered to horses and when.
“Fishman and Giannelli sold drugs to get around these rules,” Chow said.
The prosecutor said Fishman and Giannelli, who was his associate, had “hundreds of clients” and were “paid millions of dollars.”
One of the drugs Fishman manufactured boosted red blood cells in horses to increase endurance, Chow said.
He said Fishman described this drug as “the Holy Grail” of drugs.
The prosecutor said Fishman was also obsessed with manufacturing drugs that would be undetectable in post-race testing.
Chow added one of Fishman's clients was trainer Jorge Navarro. He described Navarro as one of the sport's most successful trainers who ran a doping program that relied on Fishman and others.
Navarro has pleaded guilty for his role in the case and has been sentenced to five years in prison.
Chow told jurors that the government's case would include the testimony of trainers who bought Fishman's drugs, text messages, items seized as part of search warrants, and “the words of the defendants on wiretaps.”
During his opening statement, Fishman's attorney Maurice Sercarz said that when Fishman became a veterinarian, he swore an oath promising to always work for the benefit and health of horses.
“This is the calling he answered,” Sercarz said.
He added, “It will be for the government to prove that his intent and purpose was something other than limiting animal suffering.”
The defense attorney told jurors there is great beauty in racing, but there is an ugly side with too many owners and trainers willing to cheat.
Sercarz said it wasn't his client's intention to defraud or mislead anyone.
“The individuals who purchased substances and products from Dr. Fishman knew what they were getting,” he said.
Giannelli attorney Louis Fasulo said his client didn't do anything wrong. She believed the products Fishman manufactured were okay to deliver to others, he said.
He said Giannelli was a high school graduate dedicated to the well-being of horses.
“She went to work and fulfilled her responsibility,” Fasulo said.
After the opening statements, prosecutors called their first witness, Courtney Adams, for limited testimony before the trial wrapped up Thursday. She worked for Fishman's business Equestology in South Florida from 2012 to 2016.
She said that during that time she saw Fishman treat animals “maybe once or twice.”
Prosecutors contend that Fishman's business was more about selling drugs than taking care of horses.
Her testimony resumes Jan. 21.
The leading horse racing industry publications are covering the Fishman-Giannelli trial via pool reporting.