By Bill Finley
NEW YORK–Standardbred trainer Nick Surick, who has admitted to doping his own horses as well as assisting Jorge Navarro in that trainer's own doping scheme, was sentenced to 62 months in federal prison Thursday by U. S. District Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil in United States District Court, Southern District of New York in lower Manhattan.
Among the many defendants in the doping case that have come before Vyskocil, it was one of the longest sentences handed out and two months longer than the 60 months she gave Navarro. Navarro has been called Surick's “doping mentor.” The longest sentence she has handed down was the 11 years she gave veterinarian and drug supplier Dr. Seth Fishman.
“I consider your conduct to be very serious,” Vyskocil told Surick at the sentencing. “By giving horses performance-enhancing drugs, you endangered the horses, and the other horses they raced against, as well as the jockeys and drivers. You're supposed to be caring for horses that you trained, yet you risked their lives and impugned the integrity of the sport in which you made your livelihood.”
Surick had pled guilty to two counts of drug adulteration and misbranding and one count of obstruction
The sentence came despite Surick's efforts to cooperate with the government. In hopes of a lighter sentence, the trainer had given the government information on others who were indicted as well as individuals who had not been indicted. But the government felt it could not use the information because Surick had incorrectly maintained that co-defendant Dr. Rebecca Linke had injected a horse he trained named Northern Virgin with EPO. Linke was able to prove that she did not inject the horse.
Surick's credibility came into question because of the false accusations against Linke and prosecutors decided they could not use his testimony against others. Surick said he did not lie about Linke and rather had problems remembering all the details of the incident. The government accepted that Surick may have been telling the truth about Linke and simply mixed up some details.
The government was willing to accept a lighter sentence because the trainer had attempted to assist prosecutors in his case. In a pre-sentencing submission, the government said Surick's sentence should be less than the 72 months recommended by the U.S. Probation Parole Office, but did not specify what length of suspension it felt was appropriate.
While showing a willingness to sign off on a sentence of less than 72 months, Assistant United States Attorney Sarah Mortazavi asked the court not to go too easy on the defendant.
“We do believe that a significant term of imprisonment is warranted here,” she said. “That he attempted to assist us must be weighed against the seriousness of his crimes and that he stood at the top of a conspiracy.”
Citing Surick's efforts to cooperate, his attorney, Timothy Donohue, asked for no prison time and for his client to receive only 12 months of home confinement.
Vyskocil wasn't having any of it.
“Home confinement is not realistic and I hope you did not give Mr. Surick false and unrealistic hopes considering how serious this offense is,” the judge said, chastising Donohue.
Vyskocil said she took Surick's attempts to cooperate into account, but it wasn't enough for her to show him much leniency.
“I have considered your efforts to cooperate and whether or not they warrant a variance in your sentence,” Vyskockil said. “But you provided information that turned out to be misleading. Having weighed your cooperation, the sentence will be well below the sentencing guidelines, but I cannot and will not impose a non-custodial sentence.”
Surick addressed the court and apologized for his actions and said he was working on “turning the page.”
“I am truly sorry for the crimes that I have committed,” he said. “I can't blame anybody but myself. I hurt the sport I love. I owe an apology to the public. They were misled and betting on a product that was not true. I can honestly say that this arrest changed my life. I only knew one thing in life–training horses. I backed myself into a corner and got caught up in the crazy competition to be the best.”
The incidents involving Northern Virgin came up frequently during the sentencing hearing. After the horse was doped, Surick became aware that investigators from the New Jersey Racing Commission were attempting to test the horse. Knowing that if they did test the horse he would be subject to severe penalties, Surick went to great lengths to hide the Standardbred and shipped him out of state. The way he handled Northern Virgin is what led to the obstruction charge.
“Only Mr. Surick was charged with obstruction,” Vyskocil said. “Mr. Navarro was not. It was Mr. Surick's horse and his terrible decision to do what he did with the horse. He moved the horse to other states and went to lengths to hide him.”