Mike Trombetta entered a horse at Gulfstream Park, saw the entries, talked things over with his owner and scratched. Chuck Lawrence hasn’t won a race from 19 starts in 2020, but a second in New York March 6 might feel like a win for a while. Tim Keefe was proud of the best horse in his barn after a third in the General George Stakes at Laurel Park last month, but might be prouder now. Lizzie Merryman trains for an owner who asked, “What’s the point?” the last time they came up against a horse from the barn of a specific trainer.
That’s the climate trainers operate in when it comes to running against suspected cheaters. Or that’s what the climate used to be. This week’s announcement of federal indictments against 27 people, including high-profile trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis, might bring welcome change.
The charges stem from a multi-year FBI investigation and brought allegations of treating horses with performance-enhancing substances, falsifying records, mislabeling medications and more. Servis, Navarro and the others could face prison time, and have had their licenses suspended by several racing jurisdictions. For more, see the press release from the United States Attorneys Office.
News of the indictments came as a shock to Thoroughbred racing, at least for a Monday morning less than eight weeks before the Kentucky Derby, but not necessarily a surprise.
“I’ve always believed that they’ve always done it, it wasn’t a surprise,” said trainer Tres Abbott, based at Fair Hill Training Center, Wednesday. “The bigger surprise was that somebody was stepping up and something was being done. The guys involved were not a surprise, the type of drugs being used were not a surprise to me. I’d heard first-hand stories from people, guys I respected, who were pretty confident they were doing stuff they weren’t supposed to be doing.”
According to the charges, the defendants conspired to acquire substances and administer them to horses including Group 1 winner and $3 million earner X Y Jet (Navarro) and last year’s 3-year-old champion Maximum Security (Servis) who won the richest Thoroughbred race in the world in Saudi Arabia Feb. 29.
The charges don’t change history. They don’t do anything for the horse Trombetta scratched when faced with meeting two Navarro trainees and one Servis runner in the same race a few weeks ago. And won’t put Keefe’s Still Having Fun any closer to the Servis-trained Firenze Fire in the General George at Laurel last month. Lawrence’s runner Vorticity still gets second money, not first, in that race at Aqueduct March 6. Merryman’s owner won’t forget that defeated feeling when he saw Navarro’s name in the entries.
But maybe all this changes the future. Trainers drew parallels to baseball’s steroid scandal and of the doping cases in cycling and other sports. The initial news was shocking and brought negatives, but the end results were positive.
“My first reaction was I was delighted because it’s hard to have to compete with trainers that you absolutely know are doing crap like that, without a shadow of a doubt,” said Merryman, who bases her business at Fair Hill.
“I think it’s great,” said Keefe, based at Laurel Park. “In my opinion I don’t believe they’re the only ones guilty. I hope it cleans things up and doesn’t just quiet these people but some of the others that may be guilty. This is how I make my livelihood. It’s difficult to work against people who have cheated and manipulated the system to their advantage.”
“Lock them up, seriously,” said Jack Fisher, whose stable of mostly steeplechasers is based on his farm in Maryland. “It’s so bad for racing. Make an example of these people and hopefully the others will stop what they’re doing or quit or something.”
“For a horse trainer or a horse owner it’s a good thing,” said Tim Woolley, another Fair Hill-based trainer. “The public perception is a bad thing. It’s up to the good guys to start creating this good environment again and the only way we can do that is by getting rid and exposing the bad guys. The more exposure we can have on these guys is going to be beneficial for the people that follow the rules. Lance Armstrong (the seven-time Tour de France winner who was caught in a doping scandal after he retired) and those guys were heroes, too, until they got caught.”
“We all suspect, everybody suspects someone, whoever they may be, when they do remarkably better than everybody else,” said Trombetta, based at Fair Hill and Laurel Park. “When those guys happen to claim horses off a wide array of trainers, some better than others, and yet the result is still the same they become the one that has gotten more out of this horse than anybody else has and you see it over and over again over time and these two in particular take it to a new level and basically transform claiming horses into stakes horses and in some cases graded stakes horses – it should have been more alarming to the regulators and the people that are running these tracks.”
Trombetta’s point – which dripped with incredulity – was echoed by others and came with a feeling of helplessness. Navarro and Servis built records of high win percentages, and reputations as “move-up” trainers, acquired support of owners, attracted better horses and went about winning more important races. Other trainers may have suspected wrongdoing, but that only goes so far.
“We’re not supposed to self-police our industry,” said Trombetta. “We’re given rules to follow and it’s not our place as horsemen to bring things to the (track) operator’s attention. They should be watching it more carefully. The numbers are out there. When one segment of the community does better than everybody else, at least – you don’t have to accuse them of wrongdoing – but at least it bears extra scrutiny. It’s as simple as that.”
Abbott relied on his eyes, and didn’t trust what he saw.
“Those of us that have been around racing, good horses, good horsemen, we’ve seen good horses run big races but when guys claim horses for $25,000 and run them back in a two other than and they rebreak at the quarter pole,” said Abbott. “Secretariat didn’t run like that. It’s a chemical that’s making them run like that.”
Lawrence made a similar observation.
“When you get a good horse you know it most of the time,” he said. “Horses work as fast as he does but they don’t gallop out like he does, they don’t come back to the barn like he does. They’re blowing more than he does. You can see it, you can feel it. But when you see those guys get horses that were running for 16 and 25 (thousand) and they’re winning allowance races and stakes, it’s not right.”
For Keefe, who cautioned that conclusions are difficult to draw until the charges play out in court, the indictments help make a point. For years, people have been skeptical of the success, but never had more than skepticism.
“I have a good friend who supported Jason Servis who said, ‘He’s not like that, he’s that good of a trainer, everybody hates to see somebody succeed,’ ” Keefe said. “I talked to them the other day and they said, ‘I feel like I’ve been bushwacked. How could I believe that?’ ”
Servis and Navarro were not brought down by positive drug tests, the usual hammer when it comes to cheating in racing. It took an FBI investigation. That helps make this case more powerful, but also sheds light on the task faced by racing’s regulators. A racetrack can deny a trainer stalls for supposedly any reason. But that trainer can also take a racetrack to court. A racing commission can investigate, but it typically doesn’t have the resources of the FBI. Suspensions get appealed, stayed, reduced. Drug tests get re-examined and questioned. And trainers who might suspect something can only do so much.
“These horses didn’t fail drug tests and if they don’t fail drug tests, there’s nothing else that can prove anything,” said Woolley. “You have suspicions, but that’s all you have. You’ve got to prove it and you can’t prove it unless something like that happens.”
Woolley and the others said most trainers would welcome additional investigation and scrutiny. They also hope the charges discourage others not named in these indictments and begin to change the landscape. Barn security matters, and is supposedly in place, but it doesn’t stop everyone.
“It’s amazing how bold they were,” said Lawrence. “It’s amazing to me, having experienced a Breeders’ Cup and some Grade 1 participations, the testing going into those for three days and everything that you feed them or give them is written down. For those guys to be able to beat that system amazes me. . . How did they get away with it in Saudi Arabia and Dubai, those places that are held up as being models.”
Trombetta called additional investigation efforts a must.
“The drug tests don’t do well enough,” he said. “They need to investigate more with feet on the ground. These tracks, that’s their obligation and nobody should have a problem with that. It will make us all better.”
He connected the dots to bettors, who drive handle for purses and other revenue streams for racetracks and racing’s participants. Security matters there, too.
“Most gamblers have trouble making money, so the ones that have lost now feel miserable,” Trombetta said. “If they don’t come back, nobody can ever calculate the damage that’s been done to them betting a product that’s not genuine. If you go to a casino and the house is somehow or another cheating you, you find out, I don’t think you’d ever want to go back again. This is a very similar situation. As hard as it is for us to capture an audience for our sport, they’ve done irreversible damage in that respect.”
Racing will always be a business, but animal welfare will forever be a partner in that business. Cases like this harm the industry’s reputation and make it difficult for all trainers, not just those caught in the investigation.
“You do this because you really like horses and you love working with horses, it’s a challenge, it’s fun and you want them not only to race well you want them to have a great, fun, long life and a career as a mare, foxhunter, whatever you think they’ll be able to do after they’re finished racing,” said Merryman. “These guys? They’re stock traders willing to break all rules necessary to make money. They don’t care what rule they break, or what they do to horses.
“It breaks my heart for the horses involved and the industry as a whole.”
Sitting in an office in his Fair Hill barn, after training his last set – and contemplating a Sunday workout by Kentucky Derby hopeful Independence Hall, Trombetta made the same point.
“It’s a shame because it’s the sport we love and we play and the animals are supposed to get the best treatment by all of us,” he said. “To do things to them that predispose them to have issues because of what you’re asking out of them when maybe you shouldn’t have been is bad. It’s bad. I think these guys opened up a huge can of worms for the industry, and tremendous problems for themselves personally, we’ll see what happens. You know what? Shame on them. Greedy bastards.”