Author: Michele MacDonald

IN THE SPAN OF less than one week, just as swiftly as if a divine hand had reached down to administer destructive punishment, American racing was dealt a gut wrenching double blow that could lead to vast changes. First came the stunning revelation that, following a lengthy probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, indictments had been issued against 28 trainers, veterinarians and others for the misuse and misbranding of drugs alleged to be performance enhancing substances or blocking or masking agents. Those charged include Jason Servis, trainer of recent Saudi Cup winner and 2019 American Champion 3yo Maximum Security, and Jorge Navarro, who saddled X Y Jet for his 2019 Dubai Golden Shaheen victory at Meydan.

X Y Jet died of what was described as a heart attack, a possible result of inappropriate substance administration, in January while training for an anticipated return to Dubai. As if all that news was not bad enough, particularly in the wake of numerous headlines about American racetrack fatalities in 2019, just days later the surging tentacles of the novel coronavirus gripped the sport across the United States. From California to Florida to Kentucky to New York, and all other major sites, the public was barred from witnessing horse racing at what is a particularly significant time of the year as worries about the potentially lethal virus escalated. Other tracks ended seasons early or suspended racing.

With key prep races for the Classic season underway, even the Kentucky Derby, American racing’s holy grail, was under threat of postponement, with an announcement from Churchill Downs expected to come sometime during the week of 16 March. As economic havoc ensued across the country as a result of stock market plunges spurred by the uncertainties of the virus as it spread, the financial impact on racing and breeding promised to be substantial, if not severe. More impact will be felt as a result of increasing demand, following the indictments, for legislation for federal governmental oversight of racing and an independent authority to oversee medication and anti doping measures.

Among those who stepped up in the wake of the charges against Servis and Navarro to call for sweeping reform was Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, the most internationally prominent figure in American racing after training Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify. “I have held off supporting the national Horseracing Integrity Act legislation until now because I’ve questioned whether the benefits of creating a new layer of federal regulation would outweigh the burdens,” Baffert stated. “However, these federal indictments have convinced me that horse racing needs immediate and drastic action to fix a broken system.” As proposed, the legislation would give authority to the United States Anti Doping Agency, which Baffert called an “independent, unbiased agency that would have no agenda other than the best interests of our athletes and our sport.”

While Baffert noted the reluctance of some to “invite Washington onto the track,” he said the current regulatory system of 38 differing state jurisdictions is not in the best interests of racing. “The losers are horses and all those who love this grand sport,” Baffert concludes. “It is time for the horse racing industry to unite in support of a national anti doping regulatory system. I invite all of my colleagues to join me in clearly asking Congress to pass the Horseracing Integrity Act (HIA).” Another high profile trainer, Mark Casse, who at the beginning of the month had written an opinion piece against what he said was the widespread abuse of the respiratory drug clenbuterol, which can act like a steroid when given in large doses, also supports the HIA.

Casse said he hopes the indictments will be the first step toward positive changes in regulation that will limit and punish drug use. “In life, you have to figure out what’s more important, winning at all costs or your integrity,” Casse said, adding that the accused trainers chose the former and “now they’ll pay the price.” As charged, the trainers could face prison terms if found guilty. In the wake of the indictments, The Jockey Club stated in a media release that it “pledged our total cooperation as federal authorities continue their investigations and prosecutions.” The organisation has been the primary proponent of the HIA. Furthermore, The Jockey Club revealed that a private international investigative company it had hired, 5 Stones, had uncovered “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.” The owners involved with Maximum Security and the late X Y Jet both said they were shocked by the indictments. Gary West, who bred Maximum Security and now owns the colt with Coolmore, announced that he would have renowned surgeon Larry Bramlage give the multiple Grade One winner a ‘comprehensive’ examination, including tests of his heart and a bone scan of his spine and legs. “He will have digital radiographs of all of his joints and an ultrasound of his chest and lungs. He will also have a complete soundness exam, complete blood counts, serum enzyme and electrolyte profiles, and a complete physical,” West said.

Hair, urine and blood samples were taken from Maximum Security before and after the Saudi Cup, West said. “My understanding is the samples were sent to a testing laboratory in Paris, France, which has some of the most stringent testing facilities on earth,” he added, stating that he has asked that lab to test for SFG 1000, a substance allegedly used by Servis that is made from sheep placenta. Reportedly, there have been no tests in regulatory use for that substance. West made his comments after the group that owns Saudi Cup runner-up Midnight Bisou asserted that Maximum Security should be disqualified from that race, which provided a $10 million prize to the winner, based on the allegations that Servis was using drugs on the colt.

“One would expect that Maximum Security would be disqualified from all his races, including the Saudi Cup, due to the recent findings of the use of undetectable performance enhancing drugs in his training and races,” said Jeff Bloom, one of Midnight Bisou’s owners. As an ironic side note, West and his wife, Mary, are continuing their legal challenge of the disqualification of Maximum Security in the Kentucky Derby due to impeding rivals by veering out in the stretch drive. Clearly, with drugs, the coronavirus pandemic and legal wrangling, there are many more chapters to come in America’s racing drama this year, and it can be expected that more disillusioning and damning information will surface and steal headlines.

Even The Jockey Club’s report on 12 March that overall 2019 equine fatalities were down to the lowest level in a decade, 1.53 per 1,000 starts, meaning that 99.84% of Flat racing starts at racetracks participating in the injury database were completed without a fatality, was obscured by the indictments and the impending virus doom. At this point, those of us who have spent our professional lives in the sport are praying for cures and salvation.

Michele MacDonald
Award winning International Journalist

American Racing Clouded by Drugs Indictments and Virus