It is a sign of how desperate things had become in American racing that when the high-profile trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro were among 27 individuals named in an indictment last month which alleged the depth and scope of drug-related cheating on US tracks, it was, for many, a cause for celebration. “I wonder how many races I’ve lost over the years to cheaters,” Mark Casse, a multiple Grade One-winning trainer, said this week. “I told my owners after this happened that their horses, they’re getting faster every day, because some others are going to get slower.”
Casse, who has been training for nearly four decades, saddled the winners of the Preakness and the Belmont, two legs of American racing’s famous Triple Crown, in 2019. And yet, he says that he had been “questioning how much I even wanted to be involved with training horses, with all that was going on. It’s like going to a gunfight with a knife, you have no chance, and that’s a terrible feeling.”
The federal charge sheet against Servis and Navarro, who entered not guilty pleas at a hearing this month, and their co-accused is an extraordinary document. It includes transcripts of alleged intercepted mobile phone calls discussing the manufacture, distribution and use of a wide range of illegal performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs): blood boosters, analgesics, stimulants, growth factors , joint blocks and more. It alleges that reckless and incessant doping to win was breaking down and killing horses in the trainers’ barns. And it carries clear hints too that these charges are just the beginning.
The horses allegedly doped to win huge purses include Navarro’s XY Jet, who took the $2.5m Golden Shaheen in Dubai in March 2019, and Maximum Security, who took the Grade One Haskell Invitational for Servis at Monmouth last July.
Maximum Security was also disqualified from first place in last season’s Kentucky Derby for impeding two rivals and took the world’s richest race, the new $20m Saudi Cup, just a few days before the indictments were published. The winner was running in the famous blue and orange Coolmore Stud silks after John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith had bought a 50% share in the horse, although the $10m [£7.98m] first prize has since been withheld. In one call recorded by the FBI set out in the indictment, Servis allegedly tells the vet Kristian Rhein, one of his co-accused, that he is concerned that Maximum Security has been dope-tested having recently received a customised PED called SGF-1000. “They don’t even have a test for it,” Rhein says. “There’s not a test for it in America.”
The charges are shocking but also, for many in US racing, not surprising. Navarro and Servis had been logging exceptional strike-rates in competitive races for several seasons. In 2018, Servis won $7.6m in prizes with a strike-rate of 32%, while Navarro won $6.7m [£5.3m] from a 34% strike-rate. A year later, they were first and second among top-20 trainers in terms of strike-rate, with 29% and 28% respectively.
“That’s not extraordinary,” Casse says. “It’s impossible. There’s only so much you can do as a trainer, it’s about having and recruiting the best horses. But here you can have a horse that’s maybe four or five years old and has been a certain type of horse all its life, and once he gets into these guys’ hands, he becomes a star.”
It took an extensive FBI investigation to gather enough evidence to indict Navarro and Servis, and that in turn was launched only because the American Jockey Club engaged 5 Stones, a Florida-based private investigations firm, to gather enough evidence to build an initial case.
In terms of its wealth and influence, the American Jockey Club resembles its British counterpart in name only. Instead, power resides with the tracks and racing commissions in individual states. This is the root of US racing’s long-standing integrity issues according to Barry Irwin, a leading owner for many years and one of the founders of the Water Hay Oats Alliance, which campaigns for an end to legal raceday medication.
“None of them are motivated or have the will to go out and look for people who are breaking the rules,” Irwin says. “The reason is that most of the racetracks don’t want these people to get caught, because these trainers bring a lot of horses and each track needs horses, they need full fields so they can generate more betting handle, which is where their profits come from.”
Irwin and the American Jockey Club are also keen supporters of the Horseracing Integrity Act (HIA), which is currently inching its way through Congress and would subject racing to the same anti-doping regime as other American sports under the procedures of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Hopes are high that the indictments against Servis, Navarro and any other big names that may be added to the list as the investigation continues could give the HIA a final push through the legislature.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of nervous trainers out there,” Casse says. “For so long, they’ve thought they were getting away with it, and so did Navarro and Servis, but we found out in the end. What do they say, he who laughs last, laughs loudest?”