Author: John Berry
CORONAVIRUS IS, of course, the biggest story at present in the racing world, as it is in the world in general. That tells us (not that we needed telling) how serious coronavirus is, because under any normal circumstances what one might call the war on drugs in the USA would be dominating our headlines. American racing’s war on drugs, of course, has nothing to do with central American narcotics barons, but centres around a court house in New York in which 27 people including the leading trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro were indicted last week. Four separate indictments name the 27 defendants and allege that they have engaged in a ‘widespread, corrupt scheme by racehorse trainers, veterinarians, PED distributors and others to manufacture, distribute, and receive adulterated and misbranded PEDs and to secretly administer those PEDs to racehorses under scheme participants’ control.”
PED stands for performance enhancing drug and the case revolves largely around EPO (erythropoietin) which shot to fame (or, more correctly, infamy) a few years ago thanks to its use in the world of professional cycling. The hallmark of EPO is that it enables the athlete, human or equine, to keep finding extra reserves of energy (thanks to its promotion of red blood cells) despite having been under pressure for what seems like an abnormally long time. Traditionally, we have just described this trait in the athlete as ‘stamina’ but in recent seasons many American racegoers have observed that horses trained by Servis and Navarro, who are trainers who have started to post notably good winning percentages, have been displaying an abnormal ability to keep going when they should be getting tired.
Crucially, horses who have joined their barns after having been claimed have been running as if they have significantly more stamina than they had ever previously displayed. Following last week’s bombshell it is now perhaps easier to understand why seemingly exposed horses might have been regularly showing such dramatic improvement for coming under the care of Servis or Navarro. Obviously we cannot pre-empt the court case, but reading the 44 page indictment makes it easy to see why the District Attorney’s office would have felt that there was enough substance to the charges to justify indicting the alleged culprits.
In addition to the EPO like drugs, illegal anti inflammatories are also covered in the document. One of them is, chillingly, referred to as ‘red acid’, explained thus in the indictment’s notes: ‘Red acid is a term used by the defendants to refer generally to customised PEDs designed, in part, to reduce inflammation in joints, thereby improving a racehorse’s race performance. Similar to customised analgesics, red acid, among other things, is administered to mask physical injuries in racehorses, thereby increasing the risk of injury while racing.’
The indictment spells out the consequence of this illegal drug use: ‘By failing to abide by such proscriptions (sic), racehorse trainers, veterinarians, and others imperil the health and wellbeing of racehorses by: (1) administering to racehorses unapproved drugs whose chemical composition is unknown; (2) enabling non veterinarians, such as racehorse trainers, to administer drugs to racehorses using methods of administration that can injure and, in extreme cases, kill the horse; and (3) masking a horse’s ability to feel pain, thereby causing the horse to overexert itself during periods of intense exercise, which can lead to accidents, broken limbs, or death.’
Another section details the dubious methods used: ‘In virtually all cases, customised PEDs created and manufactured by the defendants lacked requisite approvals from the FDA for use in an animal, were administered without a valid prescription, and/or contained deficient labelling. In many cases, the customised PEDs were not manufactured in facilities registered with the FDA. In many cases, the customised PEDs were designed to be untestable on drug tests, in order to defraud and mislead federal and state legislators, racing officials and the betting public. In many cases, the customised PEDs contained false or misleading labelling containing, for example, the terms ‘for research purposes only’, or ‘homeopathic’, in order to defraud and mislead federal and state regulators into believing the products were not intended for the purpose of doping racehorses.’
As explained above, the illegal painkillers increased the chance of horses suffering fatal injuries. On top of that, EPO is recognised as increasing the chances of heart attacks. This means that the alleged plot was not merely an illicit case of trying to improve the horses’ performances, but was also putting horses’ lives at risk. Lest one think this to have been a harmless game, the indictment refers to ‘telephone conversations regarding the administration of PEDs, and the surreptitious disposal of the bodies of horses that have died on the property of Navarro or his fellow conspirators. For example, on February 1 2019 intercepted call between Nicholas Surick and Michael Tannuzzo, the defendant, discussing Navarro, Surick stated, in part and among other things: “You know how many horses he killed and broke down that I made disappear. . . .
You know how much trouble he could get in . . . if they found out . . . the six horses we killed?” Tragically, it would appear that one of the defendants’ casualties was last year’s Dubai Golden Shaheen winner X Y Jet. X Y Jet, of course, is not the most celebrated horse to appear in the indictment, the administration of illegal drugs to recent Saudi Cup hero Maximum Security being detailed in another section. We are going to have to wait and see how this one pans out. However, the darkest hour is said to be the one which comes before dawn, so let us hope that the ultimate upshot of this sorry story will be, to borrow a phrase from President Trump, the draining of racing’s swamp.
For too long, too many trainers around the world have worked on the basis that, to quote from the Travelling Wilburys’ song Tweeter and the Monkey Man, ‘anything’s legal as long as you don’t get caught’, and too many owners have been more concerned with assessing the results which their trainers achieve than the ethics by which they operate. We can only hope that this legal action hastens the end of that era.