Trainers, vets indicted for drugging racehorses to go faster

A widespread effort to administer performance-enhancing drugs to racehorses, resulting in injury and death, was revealed by an FBI investigation. More than two dozen individuals have been indicted, including Maximum Security trainer Jason Servis. 

Gregory Payan/AP
Trainer Jason Servis is seen in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 3, 2019. Mr. Servis is among more than two dozen officials charged in what authorities describe as a widespread international scheme to drug horses to race faster.

More than two dozen people, including the trainer of champion Maximum Security, were charged in what authorities described Monday as a widespread international scheme to drug horses to make them race faster.

Trainer Jason Servis, whose stable includes the 3-year-old champion, was charged with administering performance-enhancing drugs to that horse and others. Maximum Security crossed the finish line first at the 2019 Kentucky Derby before being disqualified for interference and has since won four of his five high-profile races.

The charges against trainers, veterinarians, and others were detailed in four indictments unveiled Monday in Manhattan federal court. Charges brought against the 27 people include drug adulteration and misbranding conspiracy.

Performance-enhancing drugs "were given to racehorses in an effort to increase their performance beyond their natural abilities," William F. Sweeney Jr., assistant director in charge of the FBI New York Office, said at a news conference. "What actually happened to the horses amounted to nothing less than abuse. They experienced cardiac issues, overexertion leading to leg fractures, increased risk of injury, and, in some cases, death. Conversely, the human being involved in the scheme continued to line their purses as they manipulated this multibillion-dollar horse racing industry across the globe."

Authorities say the drugs can cause horses to overexert themselves, leading to heart issues or death. According to the indictments, other drugs used to deaden a horse's sensitivity to pain to improve the horse's performance could also lead to leg fractures.

Authorities said participants in the fraud – affecting races in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio, Kentucky, and the United Arab Emirates – misled federal and state regulators, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, various state horse racing regulators, and the betting public.

National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and CEO Alex Waldrop called the charges "abhorrent."

"There is no place in our sport for individuals who treat horses with disregard for their well-being or who undermine the integrity of our competition for personal gain," Mr. Waldrop said. "We support the effort to bring these charges to light and are hopeful that their swift adjudication will help assure other horse racing participants and the public at large that our sport will not condone or tolerate the behavior alleged in the indictments."

Federal authorities searched barns in Florida and a manufacturing facility in Kentucky. The Stronach Group, which operates Gulfstream Park West and Palm Meadows Training Center in Florida, said it complied with the search warrants specific only to the barns and stalls of those charged.

"The Stronach Group is committed to achieving the highest level of horse care and safety standards in thoroughbred racing," the company said in a statement. "There is no room in our sport for anyone who does not prioritize the health and well-being of horses and riders."

The group, which also operates Santa Anita Park in California and Pimlico Racecourse and Laurel Park in Maryland, was not charged. There is no evidence these charges have any connection to racehorse deaths at Santa Anita in 2019.

In the indictment, Mr. Servis is charged with giving Maximum Security a performance-enhancing drug called SGF-1000, recommending it to another trainer, and conspiring with a veterinarian to make it look like a false positive for another substance. The other trainer, Jorge Navarro, is also among those charged.

On February 29th, Maximum Security won the world's richest race, the $10 million Saudi Cup.

Mr. Servis is alleged to have given performance-enhancing drugs to "virtually all the racehorses under his control." He entered horses in races approximately 1,082 times from 2018 through February 2020, according to authorities.

"The charges in this indictment result from a widespread, corrupt scheme by racehorse trainers, veterinarians, PED (performance-enhancing drug) distributors, and others to manufacture, distribute and receive adulterated and misbranded PEDs and to secretly administer those PEDs to racehorses under scheme participants' control," an indictment reads.

Prosecutors noted in indictments that professional horse racing is a $100 billion industry followed by millions of fans worldwide, leading racehorses to sell at auction for well over $1 million.

"A sad day for racing but a long time coming," trainer Graham Motion tweeted. "A good day for those who try to play by the rules, we will all be better for it."

According to the indictments, marketers and distributors of drugs known as "blood builders" to stimulate a horse's endurance have infiltrated the horse racing industry for at least the last decade.

One of Navarro's horses, X Y Jet, who is named in one of the indictments as a recipient of performance-enhancing drugs, was responsible for over $3 million in winnings and died of an apparent heart attack in January.

"Unfortunately, our worst fears have been confirmed today and those who love sport and equine athletes should be outraged," U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis T. Tygart said. "Fortunately, there are many in the industry who have been pushing to prioritize equine health and safety. However, those who remain opposed to uniform, independent regulation of the sport obstruct the type of progress needed to curb this abuse."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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