Doping indictments show we have a lot of work to do – but are we up to it?

By: Charles Hayward 

Early on the morning of Monday March 9, I was starting work on an article on trainer Mark Casse, who one week earlier published an op-ed in Thoroughbred Daily News titled ‘Clenbuterol – it has to be stopped, and now’.

“Clenbuterol is the most abused drug in our industry,” Casse wrote in his introduction. 

Clenbuterol is a bronchodilator that was designed to be used in the treatment of asthma and respiratory diseases. Casse stated that, if used inappropriately:

  1. It increases muscle mass
  2. It improves endurance and stamina
  3. It boosts energy levels. 

However, it has some potentially dangerous side effects: 

  1. Bone loss
  2. Alters bone micro-architecture
  3. Produces an irregular heartbeat. 

The drug has been banned by every major sporting body in the world and was banned by the International Olympic Committee over 20 years ago. However, it remains legal in Thoroughbred racing in the U.S. with very short withdrawal periods. In effect, clenbuterol has taken the place of anabolic steroids, which were banned over ten years ago in racing. 

It is a performance-enhancer due to the increased muscle mass and the increase in endurance and stamina, but it can have deadly consequences due to the bone loss and irregular heartbeat. 

Casse is convinced, based on what he has observed, that the abuse of clenbuterol has contributed to more breakdowns.

Important and brave

The response to this article was so strong not only in the U.S. but around the world that, two days later, Casse joined Bill Finley and Jonathan Greene on the TDN Writer’s Room Podcast to discuss the dangers and performance-enhancing aspects of clenbuterol that were damaging the sport. 

As I was sitting at my desk that Monday morning, the purpose of my column was intended to promote Casse’s position on clenbuterol but also to recognize that, in the time I worked at the Daily Racing Form, NYRA and here at TRC, I could not recall any instance where an important trainer had stepped forward and criticized a current pervasive position on medication and strongly advocated for change for the betterment of all racing participants.

As an aside, Casse was just nominated for the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame based on his tremendous accomplishments in racing at the highest level. However, Canada is miles ahead of the U.S. as he was elected to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2016 based on his 11 Sovereign Awards (the equivalent to the Eclipse Awards) and 14 training titles at Woodbine.

I cannot express to you how important and brave it was for Casse to step forward and challenge the industry to make a substantive change to a medication practice that was being abused by his trainer colleagues. This action was unprecedented in my experience in the racing industry and gave me some new optimism that serious people were ready to participate in industry change.

I have written numerous articles about the failures of our industry leaders, including the state regulators, the racetracks, the regional and national horsemen’s organizations, and a minority of trainers, to clean up the sport. However, based on the events that transpired later in the day on March 9, racing in the U.S. has the opportunity to demonstrate that we are serious about removing cheaters from racing. 

As a reminder before we move forward, here is an article I wrote over a year ago. Nothing had changed until now. Do we have the collective desire and ability to make the hard choices that lie ahead?

As I was sitting at my desk that morning, I received two important calls. The first was from a trainer at Belmont Park who said that there were rumors flying around that backstretch that Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro had been served indictments that morning, along with a couple dozen other people. Shortly after that call, I received another telling me that they were sending over an email containing four indictments that the Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney’s office was serving on 27 people related to Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing. 

It is very important to note that Servis and Navarro were scheduled to be arraigned on March 23, but that arraignment was delayed due to covid-19 issues. Also, please keep in mind that all the defendants are innocent until proven guilty. Here is a copy of one of the four indictments relating to the cases of Servis and Navarro. 

Corrupt scheme

Read this brief section from the indictment, signed by Geoffrey S. Berman, United States Attorney: “The charges in this indictment result from a widespread, corrupt scheme by racehorse trainers, veterinarians, PED [performance-enhancing drugs] distributors, and others to secretly administer those PEDs to racehorses under scheme participants’ control … Trainers who participated in the scheme stood to profit from the success of racehorses under their control by earning a share of their horses’ winnings, and by improving their horses’ racing records, thereby yielding higher trainer fees and increasing the number of racehorses under their control.” 

Here are details of a phone call from the indictment that was recorded: 

“On or about March 5, 2019, Servis and Navarro coordinated regarding the procurement and administration of SGF-1000. During that call, Servis stated, “I’ve been using it [SGF-1000] on everything almost,” before Navarro stopped the conversation [saying], “Jay we’ll sit down and talk about this. I don’t want to talk about this shit on the phone, okay?”

On or about July 10, 2019, Servis and trainer Henry Argueta are alleged to have discussed the illegality, and planned the administration of clenbuterol, a particular prescription drug that may be used as a PED, which was administered to Servis’ racehorses without a valid prescription.

There has been voluminous coverage of the indictments of the 27 individuals. Although I have no idea of the scope of this illegal doping program, it is hard to imagine that this network outlined in the indictments was set up to only sell to a handful of trainers. It is entirely possible that the number of arrests will increase as the case proceeds.

Sign of hope

Next I would like to follow up with some comments from Mark Casse from this article by Natalie Voss in The Paulick Report of March 18

“Last week’s federal indictments of more than two dozen people accused of doping racehorses had already thrown the sport into turmoil,” Voss wrote. “But for by-the-book trainers like Mark Casse last Monday wasn’t a black eye for the business – it was a sign of hope. 

‘I didn’t know if I wanted to continue to be a horse trainer,’ Casse said on a media call Tuesday. ‘I seriously thought about retiring because it’s just so frustrating. It’s frustrating when you work and you work and you work and you know you’re getting beaten, not by a better horse, a better trainer, a better track … 

‘They didn’t find Lance Armstrong by testing. They didn’t find steroid users in baseball by testing. They found it by investigations by people talking,’ said Casse. ‘I promise you, if the trainer is doing something, the assistant trainer probably knows about it, grooms know about it, the veterinarian probably… We have a pretty good idea who’s cheating.’”

We have a pretty good idea who’s cheating.” The statement speaks volumes. I submit to you that the racetracks and their racing offices know who is cheating; as Casse points out, the trainers have a good idea who is cheating, the vets know the trainers that are cheating, the regulators should know who is cheating and I will guarantee that the biggest bettors at every track know who is cheating.

How industry leaders reacted

I now would like to take excerpts from selected industry leaders that issued statements on the day of the indictments. I have edited each of the statements but tried very hard to maintain the relevant portions, which were all issued the day of the indictments, March 9, 2020

Thoroughbred Safety Coaltion (TSC)

Safety and Integrity will always come first for the members of the Coalition, which is why restricting medication and improving testing is one of the main pillars in our reform … 

I have a couple of thoughts: first, the TSC has committed to a robust out-of-competition testing (OOCT) program and only OOCT stands a chance of catching cheaters. The two indicted trainers ran at a number of the TSC tracks and I am certain are very familiar to your racing offices. I would suggest that the TSC has a regular meeting with directors of racing at your tracks to identify the pool of most egregious cheaters and establish strategies to monitor their stalls and include the use of undercover surveillance. 

Demonstrate to your organization, trainers, jockeys, owners and bettors that you are serious about returning the sport to the honest trainers and owners and increasing the confidence of the bettors in your racing product.

National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA)

The charges documented in today’s federal indictment against 27 individuals in horse racing are abhorrent. There is no place in our sport for individuals who treat horses with disregard for their wellbeing or who undermine the integrity for our competition for personal gain.   

I find it a bit odd that the NTRA would acknowledge it was the federal indictment that resulted in these arrests, yet the NTRA does not support the Horseracing Integrity Act (HIA). 

Also, there is no acknowledgement that the state regulatory agencies in all states where these trainers raced failed the industry miserably. 

It is my understanding from public comments by Dennis Drazin, Monmouth Park President, that Monmouth Park is working with the NTRA and other industry organizations to pursue some new legislation. Does the industry really need to recycle people and programs that have been proven not to work. 

The Jockey Club and Jeff Gural, representing his harness tracks, are the only two organizations in the industry that provided resources for this investigation and arrest by the Southern District of the United States Attorney. These two organizations are the strongest funders and supporters of the HIA, which is now supported by a majority of the members of the House of Representatives. In addition, this month the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee passed a bill calling for a presentation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) on how it would implement an “anti-doping program”.

The Jockey Club 

Equine doping has long been a concern in racing circles, but one that has been difficult to investigate or prosecute effectively because the sport’s regulatory oversight has been diffused, and often lax, across more than 30 separate regulatory and enforcement agencies. Most people in the sport have suspected that some level of doping occurs, but evidence has been mostly third-hand and circumstantial, and real information was needed to define the problem and craft a path to a solution.

[The] 5 Stones (5Si) investigation produced indications of significant racehorse doping and active equine doping networks within the industry. This included information supporting findings that doping is often supported by enablers, composed of trainers, veterinarians, pharmacists, stable staff and, in some instances, owners.

We have pledged our total cooperation as Federal authorities continue their investigations and prosecutions.

Simply stated this investigation would never have resulted in indictments if the Jockey Club had not engaged and paid for the investigative services of 5 Stones intelligence (5Si). The surveillance and investigatory work undertaken by 5Si clearly was a key factor in the decision by the FBI and the Southern District Manhattan office of the U.S. Attorney to take on the case.

Kitty Block, President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States

The reprehensible actions described in the racehorse doping scandal announced today are likely just the tip of the iceberg. These individuals, and the industry, must be held accountable. Congress needs to pass the Horseracing Integrity Act to improve the welfare of racehorses throughout the country, and bring the industry into the modern century. 

This is a very important statement from a powerful animal rights organization. Its continuing support in Washington political circles is immense and the Humane Society has been very helpful during the serious equine breakdown issues that the industry experienced in 2019.

National HBPA

The news today of the indictment returned against racehorse trainers, veterinarians and others involved is extremely troubling. The National HBPA focus has always been, and remains, the health and safety of the horse, the jockey and all of the individuals coming into contact with the horse, and we strongly oppose the behavior alleged in this indictment …

It is disappointing that the National HBPA has not expressed outrage that this illegal behavior by members of its organization has resulted in substantial financial losses to its member owners and trainers, as well as bettors that fund a substantial portion of its budget. 

Trainers who cheat have had a negative impact on U.S. total wagering on horses, which fell from $15.18 million in 2003 to $11.037 last year – a decline of 27.3 percent. There is no question that cheaters have undermined the performance of the industry pari-mutuel pools. 

In 2019, Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro had total purse earnings of $17.894 million. Taking into consideration that, according to the indictment, most of their horses ran on PEDs, I would estimate that a minimum of 50 percent of these total purses should have gone to other trainer and owner members of the organization as well as jockeys and their agents. 

By not supporting the Horseracing Integrity Act or making other serious efforts to increase the safety and integrity of HBPA trainers’ activities, other HBPA trainers and owners are suffering financial losses.

Ed Martin, President of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI)

Today’s indictments are good news in that they demonstrate the multiple layers of enforcement and the tools available, including wiretaps, that exist to police this sport. The takeaway for everyone involved in racing is simple: don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. Putting one over on the lab does not mean you won’t be eventually caught. 

Wow! According to the ARCI website, “RCI members are legally charged with the responsibility to ensure the integrity of racing and pari-mutuel wagering.” This is the organization of state racing regulators. Between the two indicted trainers, they raced in virtually all racing states from New York to Florida and none of these ARCI regulators reported any significant nefarious activities or rules infractions. 

Despite Martin’s rosy comments, ARCI regulators failed to protect the interest of all of the state racing licensees on the East Coast. The failure of the ARCI regulators in the states where Servis and Navarro raced is the precise reason why the racing industry needs the professional approach and resources of USADA. 

The best articulation of the benefits of this approach is very well articulated in the Jockey Club’s Vision 2025

Alan Foreman, Chairman and CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (also advisor to many state horsemen’s organizations, board member of the NTRA). Speaking on Steve Byk’s At The Races radio show

This is a bad news good news story … the good news is the industry is capable of rooting this kind of conduct out. They’re able to deal with it and send a message of deterrence and I think that is the message here …

I regard Alan Foreman as one of the best legal minds in the industry. However, this comment truly misses the mark. Unfortunately, as pointed out above, the state regulators and the national horsemen’s organization completely failed the industry here. Sadly, I believe that Servis and Navarro would still be winning races if the Jockey Club had not engaged 5Stones intelligence to investigate and make a compelling case to get the FBI and the U.S. Attorney involved.

Investigative resources  

Here is an excerpt from an article by Matt Iuliano, Executive VP and Executive Director of the Jockey Club, published in the Paulick Report on March 13.

In 2016, the Jockey Club engaged the international private investigative firm 5Stones intelligence to critically analyze and make recommendations for improvement to the investigative infrastructure of pari-mutuel horse racing. Based on evidence of criminal activity discovered during the investigation, 5Si recommended that federal law enforcement officials be notified.

“The crisis is here, and illegal drugging has grown for years due to the lack of effective regulatory oversight by the states. As a result, a culture of cheating without consequences is allowed to thrive, and that culture denies the honest stakeholders and fans the level playing field essential to growing the sport.

Simply put, the racing industry needs more investigative resources, a much stricter regulatory environment and serious penalties, fines or jail time to act as a deterrent. Currently, it does not have the resources to protect the integrity of our races, our horses and our betting pools.

Remarkable impact

It is relevant to compare the 2019 purse earnings and win percentage and where Servis and Navarro performed in the national rankings. It is remarkable how much impact two allegedly nefarious trainers can have on the integrity of our pari-mutuel pools and the subsequent impact on our honest trainers, owners and betting customers.

In terms of total purses won, Jason Servis was eighth nationally, between Michael Maker and Bob Baffert. Navarro was 16th, between Linda Rice and Philip D’Amato. 

Navarro and Servis are both in the top 16 trainers in earnings despite a large number of starters in claimers.

Below are the top nine trainers nationally in win percentage. No surprise here. Servis and Navarro lead the pack. I guess we could call that: Hiding in Plain Sight.

Barry Irwin: is there the will?

I would like to finish with some excerpts from an article in The Paulick Report on March 10 by Barry Irwin, founder and CEO of Team Valor International:

Monday’s initiative to go after cheaters in horse racing starkly portrays the dilemma our industry faces. The initiative taken by the Justice Department and the FBI was a victory for jurisprudence and a failure of every state in America, its regulators, racing boards, investigators, Thoroughbred racetracks and rank-and-file members of racing, who stood idly by and allowed cheating on a mass scale at the very highest level of the sport to go unchecked.

Racing’s institutions, save one, all failed in their mandates to ensure the integrity of our product because of a lack of will and skill …

Testing is not unimportant, but it is not the total answer. The best use of testing is not in catching a crooked act, but in confirming a finding once it has been discovered by means of investigation. But – and here’s where will comes in – without the will to catch cheaters, there can be no investigations …

The biggest winner

The biggest winner of all Monday was the Horseracing Integrity Act, the legislation that is currently working its way through Congress, because, as racing has now shown itself to be completely incapable of policing itself, the proposed bill is the lone vehicle designed to correct the problem that was identified by the Justice Department.

And with USADA on board, using the correct tests and a dedicated investigatory task force, it is the only hope to cleanse our sport and ensure the future integrity of the product.”

In sum, we will have to see how this investigation plays out, but to date this is a big win for the industry because the magnitude and level of cheating was driving our two main constituents, owners and bettors, out of the sport. 

However in reading and talking with a lot of industry participants over the last three weeks, I wish that I felt a greater sense of urgency and more outrage at what these two trainers had allegedly done. 

In 2019 alone, these two trainers collectively won almost $18 million, and I would guess at least half of that money should have gone to other trainers, owners and bettors. As I have said before, the idea of “taking an edge” (let me refer to its real name – cheating) is unacceptable. Let’s have no more ‘go along to get along’. The gray area in racing has to be removed. In terms of wagering and rules of racing, everything needs to be black or white, right or wrong with the rule breakers punished accordingly.

Finally, the indictment of these 27, now 28, individuals is a promising first step. However, there remains a culture of cheating or taking an edge and there are trainers at our racetracks that are prepared to step in a void and use their own performance-enhancing playbook and a criminal network to support them. 

If you want the industry to survive and grow, there is no choice. The Thoroughbred racing industry needs the Horseracing Integrity Act to overhaul and develop our own investigative tools, impenetrable pari-mutuel pools and penalties that will be serious deterrents from criminal activity.

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