Taking Stock: Is SGF-1000 a PED?

Sarah Andrew

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[Editor's note: Gary and Mary West are clients of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, of which Sid Fernando is president and CEO. WTC recommended the 2014 purchase of Maximum Security's dam, Lil Indy, for $80,000 at Keeneland January for the purpose of breeding her to New Year's Day, a stallion owned by the Wests at that time and the sire of Maximum Security.]

“Just the facts, ma'am.”

The iconic line “just the facts, ma'am” is associated with the character of Sgt. Joe Friday from the 1950s cop show “Dragnet” starring actor Jack Webb in the title role of an LAPD detective. You may be too young to remember the series, but it's likely you're aware of the phrase, because it's become a part of the lexicon. That's what happens when things get repeated over and over again.

Three years ago, when the government indicted and arrested 27 individuals (it went up to 31) in what it called a wide-ranging “doping” scheme, most of us heard about the “drug” SGF-1000 for the first time. Since then, we've heard of it over and over again. This substance was specifically associated with two high-profile trainers, Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis, who'd been under investigation and were caught on tape admitting to each other that they'd used it on most of their stock.

Servis trained Maximum Security (New Year's Day), a Gary and Mary West homebred who finished first in the $20 million Saudi Cup three years ago with Coolmore as a partner. Maximum Security has yet to be declared the winner, because the following month the government issued the indictments that named the colt as the most famous recipient of SGF-1000. After this, the Saudi regulator paused purse distribution from the race, pending the outcome of its own investigation of the government's case.

In the indictment and subsequent filings, the government referred to SGF-1000 as a “customized PED,” and that label as a performance-enhancing drug has stuck. Press coverage has repeatedly referred to it as a PED and “dope.” At this stage, “dope” and “SGF-1000” are as synonymous as “dope” and Epogen, or “dope” and customized analgesics, or “dope” and “red acid,” some of the other PEDs mentioned in the indictment.

Three months ago, in early December, Servis pled guilty to two charges: a felony count of misbranding and adulterating a generic version of unprescribed clenbuterol, and a misdemeanor count of misbranding and adulterating related to SGF-1000 use. Servis admitted to judge Mary Kay Vyskocil that Maximum Security, while under his care, had been administered SGF-1000 by a veterinarian. Because SGF-1000 is the only substance that the government has said was administered to Maximum Security, its use and chemical makeup are of importance to the Saudis as they close in on a decision.

 

Widespread Use

It's important to understand that the government's case wasn't about “dope” per se; there are no federal laws about the doping of racehorses. Instead, the government relied on felony counts related to the misbranding and adulteration of substances used in interstate commerce under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to indict and convict these individuals.

In almost all of these cases, however, the misbranded and adulterated substances were bona-fide PEDs, and the government could rightfully say that it had stopped several doping schemes. However, in the specific matter of SGF-1000, it appears the government was aware the substance wasn't a PED since at least September of 2019.

During the course of the last three years, I've read more than a thousand pages of court filings and spoken to several trainers who've admitted off the record to using SGF-1000 on some of their horses. None of them thought he was “doping” horses or doing anything illegal. Some are big names in the business, others smaller trainers.

One told me he had three horses shipped to him in Florida from a facility in New York with three bottles of SGF-1000 for his vet to administer. “Their vet prescribed it. I don't know if it helped,” this trainer said. “It was hard to tell, but the show horse people in Wellington seemed to feel it helped horses recover from work. I was told it was popular with them.”

I asked him if he'd speak on the record. “No, I'd get crucified in this environment we're in now with the Feds and drugs and HISA,” he said. “But SGF-1000 has been around for a while.”

As far back as 2014, Medivet, the company that sold SGF-1000, was openly advertising the product in print trades, radio racing shows, and online, and a rep for the company posted this on Facebook on Nov. 24, 2014: “To all my Facebook friends who are involved with horses: I want to share with you two great products that are drug free and chemical free that will maximize the health and wellness of your performance horse.” This was an overture to the dressage and eventing crowd in Wellington. One of the products he described was SGF-1000, of which he said, “USEF [US Equestrian Federation] approved for competition.” I don't know if this was true or not about USEF, but Medivet and its reps were openly hawking the substance in broad daylight, not peddling it conspiratorially under the cover of darkness.

“There was nothing nefarious about it,” said another, bigger New York-based trainer, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity and admitted that a multiple Grade l winner of his now at stud in Kentucky was once on it. “Dr. [Kristian] Rhein–he had a big practice in New York–dispensed it as something that was great for recovery and wellbeing. He was a good vet, especially on soundness. He'd trot a horse up and back and tell you right away where a problem was. I didn't think anything of it, and I think it did help my horse recover after works or races. A vet always prescribed and administered it. You know, Dr. Rhein had a lot of clients, and everyone knew everyone else was using it until they put it out on that overnight in September that no one was permitted to use it. When that came out, I got scared, and I never used it again after that. No one told us it was illegal before.”

In September of 2019, NYRA, at the direction of the New York Gaming Commission, put a note on the bottom of its daily overnights saying the use of SGF-1000 was prohibited. Perhaps the FBI alerted the commission and NYRA that SGF-1000 use on its grounds was widespread. By this time, the FBI already had Dr. Rhein, one of the co-owners of Medivet, boasting on tape that he'd sold “assloads” of the substance, and we've subsequently learned from court filings that Medivet was making “millions” from the sale of it. All of this makes it obvious that SGF-1000 was being used by more than just Navarro and Servis.

On Aug. 3, 2021, Dr. Rhein pled guilty in federal court to a felony charge of drug misbranding and adulteration. The government has a list of Dr. Rhein's clients who purchased and used SGF-1000 and is aware that some of these trainers had horses for well-known owners, some of whom belong to elite industry organizations. From court filings, the government also is aware of the labs that made the SGF-1000 – “unregistered facilities,” according to the Department of Justice, in California and Australia. These labs shipped SGF-1000 to Medivet's facility in Kentucky for packaging. The government's case that SGF-1000 was misbranded is convincing.

 

Just the Facts, Ma'am

As far as SGF-1000 is concerned, however, it appears that government prosecutors, who repeatedly called it a PED in court filings and press releases, may not have been correct. In a court filing that noted an FBI application to search emails of one of the owners of Medivet, an FBI agent wrote this in part about SGF-1000: “I have further learned that the Hong Kong Lab did not detect the presence of any growth factors or growth hormones in the sample that was analyzed, but did detect the presence of sheep amino acids.”

A person with direct knowledge who is not authorized to comment on the matter told me FBI investigators don't believe SGF-1000 was a PED, unlike other substances that were named in the indictments.

According to court filings, New Jersey regulators and a confidential source working with the FBI took blood samples from Maximum Security after he was administered SGF-1000 in early June of 2019. The confidential source dispatched the samples to the Hong Kong Jockey Club lab, and the testing came back negative for PEDs. During this time frame the HKJC responded with this email note – obtained from court filings – to the confidential source: “We had analysed (sic) the content of the SGF 1000 from Medivet some years ago. It is listed to contain a combination of growth factors, peptides, proteins, and signal molecules obtained from ovine placental extract. No detectable amount of growth factors was found but collagens common to ovine or bovine origin were detected.”

SGF-1000 originated in Australia and since 2014 has been tested by a number of other reputable organizations with no relationship to Medivet, including the Racing Medication & Testing Consortium (RMTC), Australian authorities in 2015, and UC Davis Maddy Laboratory, and not once in these tests has it been positive as a PED, according to court filings. Each time, however, it tested for sheep collagen, which is widely used in the manufacture of facial creams and other human skin-care products.

 

Government Test

According to court filings, government agents had obtained a bottle of SGF-1000 by July of 2019 and “sent the substance to a laboratory in Hong Kong for testing to determine the precise chemical contents of that substance.”

The thinking here seemed to be that SGF-1000 didn't test in Maximum Security's blood, but it would from the actual sample straight out of the bottle.

The results of that test have never been publicly revealed. If SGF-1000 did contain PEDs, wouldn't the government have publicized it? If it didn't test positive, the government wouldn't be under any obligation to share the results, because the charges of misbranding and adulterating have nothing to do with whether a substance is a PED or not.

Tellingly, after Servis pled guilty to the misbranding charge for SGF-1000, the DOJ press release did not use the words “performance-enhancing drug” or “PED” in reference to SGF-1000 – an about-face from before; instead, the government noted that Servis was guilty of having SGF-1000 administered to horses after NY regulators said the substance was illegal to use in Sept. of 2019. The federal misdemeanor charge was essentially for a state regulatory violation.

The government had a chance to reveal the results of its 2019 test but never did.

The government had access to the “unregistered” labs that manufactured SGF-1000 and could have readily exposed the ingredients that went into the formulation of the substance, but it never did.

Based on the standing facts, SGF-1000 was a misbranded substance, but it was not a PED.

And by the way, the exact line “Just the facts, ma'am” was never uttered by Sgt. Joe Friday, either. It's an urban legend. That's what happens when something gets repeated over and over again.

Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.

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