By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
Federal prosecutors have charged more than two dozen racehorse trainers, veterinarians and drug dealers in a “widespread, corrupt” scheme to dope horses to push them beyond their limits, increase profits and cheat the betting public.
“This is the most far reaching prosecution of racehorse doping in the history of the Department of Justice,” U.S. Attorney for Manhattan Geoffrey S. Berman said at a press conference today, adding that the care and respect due to the animals competing as well as the integrity of racing are matters of “deep concern” to his office.
According to the charges filed today, drugs used by the defendants in the scheme included “blood builders,” which are used to increase endurance and can lead to cardiac issues or death, “pain shots” and “nerve blocks” used to deaden a horse’s nerves, “red acid” used to reduce inflammation in the joints, and Viagra. Many of these drugs were manufactured in the United States in unregulated facilities, while some were smuggled into the country from abroad.
The defendants raced horses at tracks in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio, Kentucky and the United Arab Emirates. To avoid detection of their scheme, the indictment said, the defendants routinely defrauded and misled federal and state regulators.
Among those charged was Jason Servis who entered horses in 1,082 races between 2018 and 2020. Servis trained Maximum Security, a horse who crossed the finish line first at the Kentucky Derby last year only to be disqualified later. The prosecutors said Servis gave performance-enhancing drugs to “virtually all of the racehorses under his control.”
Jorge Navarro, a Florida-based trainer who entered horses in 1,480 races between 2018 and 2020, with earnings above $13 million, was charged with running the “Navarro Doping Program.” One of his most successful horses was XY Jet, who won a $1.5 million purse in the United Arab Emirates in 2019, and, according to the charges, was administered many drugs. He died of a heart attack in January this year, at just eight years old.
“These defendants engaged in this conduct not for the love of the sport, and certainly not out of concern for the horses, but for money,” Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, told reporters at a press conference today. “And it was the racehorses that paid the price for the defendants’ greed.”
We applaud the U.S. Attorney for acting against these individuals who have evaded accountability. But the charges filed today reveal just the tip of the iceberg. The horse racing industry is beset by a drug crisis that has contributed to the deaths of thousands of horses over the years. On average, nearly 10 horses died each week at U.S. racetracks in 2018, according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, the most recent data available for thoroughbred racehorses.
The problem was created when Congress, in 1980, decided to leave it up to states to come up with their own rules on what drugs to allow in horse racing. This has led to a confusing patchwork of state laws with no uniform national standard regarding which drugs are permitted or penalties for doping.
The widespread use of both legal and illegal drugs can lead to a multitude of problems, both for horses and riders. Some drugs allow a horse to push through pain, intensifying an injury, or make it possible to force worn-out horses to compete, which can result in serious injuries and death.
That’s why the Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society Legislative Fund and the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (along with dozens of groups in the racing industry and animal protection arena) support passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act H.R.1754/S.1820 in Congress.
"Today is a sad day for the Sport of Kings," said Representative Paul Tonko, D-N.Y. "No sport can long thrive if it relies on FBI intervention to ensure the basic elements of fair and clean sporting. Unless the industry unites to secure passage of our Horseracing Integrity Act, the future viability of horse racing in the United States is in serious doubt."
The bill, sponsored in the House by Reps. Tonko and Andy Barr, R-Ky., and in the Senate by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., would both ban race day medication and substantially increase out-of-competition testing. The bill would also grant independent control over rule-making, testing and enforcement oversight regarding drugs and medication to a new authority created by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), an independent entity that oversees testing of athletes at Olympics competitions and many other sporting events held in the United States. Finally, the bill would create a uniform national standard for drug testing overseen by USADA.
Please call your members of Congress and ask them to pass the Horseracing Integrity Act this year. As the charges filed today show, we cannot let the industry continue on this dangerous path that can only lead to more pain and death for these animals.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.