Nicholas Godfrey: Why this must be the day of reckoning for US racing

Horse Racing Jason Servis Saudi Cup trainer
He was smiling then: trainer Jason Servis with the Saudi Cup. Photo: Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia. Mahmoud Khaled. Home page photo of Jason Servis: NYRA / Coglianese Photos
Horse Racing Planet Nicholas Godfrey

Allegations about systematic cheating have rocked US horse racing to its core. Nicholas Godfrey on why it is time for decisive action to save the sport

I love American racing. Please don’t let them destroy it.

With hindsight, ludicrous as it sounds given that we are talking about a $20 million event in Saudi Arabia with filthy lucre as its defining concept, you could almost look back a week and a half and reflect on an age of innocence. Almost, because ‘wilful ignorance’ would be a more appropriate phrase.

And that’s allowing for the furore over Mike Smith’s whip ban, essentially an internal argument about whether the punishment fits the crime – albeit one revolving around an emotive subject that resonates deeply with the wider public.

But even that now pales into insignificance after this week’s allegations about systematic cheating via performance-enhancing drugs, focussing mainly on trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro (plus sundry other alleged enablers).

This is racing’s version of cycling’s Operation Puerto

Even if you’ve always had suspicions about certain trainers, this can be regarded only as a bombshell. No wonder the US racing community is rocked to its very core. This is horse racing’s version of cycling’s Operation Puerto, the Balco steroids case and Ben Johnson rolled into one.

Okay, maybe that is overegging it, but that’s where we might end up. Things are likely to get worse before they get better – and they’re bad enough already.

We are talking about the trainer of Maximum Security, a champion three-year-old who has just won the richest race ever run in the history of the sport. Even Navarro is hardly a nobody: he’s been a leading trainer at Gulfstream Park for several seasons. Both he and Servis, of course, are kings of the strike-rate and well known for improving other people’s low-level claimers.

The whole thing could hardly be more dramatic: early-morning FBI raids with blue lights flashing outside Florida’s barn complexes, wire taps, incriminating phone calls, leading trainers arrested. Maximum Security himself is specifically mentioned – albeit, ironically enough, for the only race he has actually lost, last June at Monmouth Park.

Navarro, allegedly, wasn’t content with plying his nefarious trade in Florida. The federal indictment says he was monkeying around in Dubai, too, before XY Jet won the Golden Shaheen. XY Jet is now dead, reportedly dying of a heart attack in January aged eight.

But it says something for the gravity of the indictments that the absolute lack of regard for the wellbeing of the horses is not even its most shocking aspect. Though it is shocking. How about this exchange involving co-defendants Nick Surick (harness trainer) and Michael Tannuzzo (low-level racehorse trainer), both identified as allegedly involved in the conspiracy?

“You know how many f***ing horses he f***ing killed and broke down that I made disappear?” Surick is alleged to have said. “You know how much trouble he could get in … if they found … the six horses we killed?”

Ignorance may have been bliss but now it is long gone

Yes, ignorance may have been bliss but now it is long gone. We’ve been told about a doping network allegedly designed for the manufacture and delivery of undetectable performance-enhancing substances. We now know about ‘red acid’, ‘bleeder’, ’frozen pain’, ‘monkey’ and more – plus, of course, SGF-1000, the “adulterated and misbranded PED” used on “everything, almost”, allegedly according to Servis from an intercepted phone call between him and his buddy Navarro.

There are questions, so many questions. Just think about XY Jet’s life and death, for starters. The blood-booster EPO has long been associated with premature heart attacks in the cycling world.

What about Maximum Security, the tough-as-nails three-year-old champion? How ironic that many of us considered him the ‘moral’ winner of the Kentucky Derby.

Here it must be reiterated that there is no allegation of wrongdoing attached to Maximum Security’s recent victory in the Saudi Cup.

Yet thanks to his trainer’s alleged misdemeanours, everything he has achieved is now likely to come with an asterisk attached. Rather like Lance Armstrong, who never failed a dope test during his pomp.

On a related subject, Coolmore, who just bought a reported 50% share in Maximum Security, might well have some questions. The colt has already been switched to Bob Baffert, the original owners, Gary and Mary West, having found themselves in an invidious position.

Horse Racing Maximum Security
Luis Saez celebrates after winning the Saudi Cup on Maximum Security. Photo: Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia/Neville Hopwood

They’ve just sold a big share in a horse whose every waking deed now comes under retrospective scrutiny. Again, it must be stressed that however incriminating the indictment and the transcripts contained therein may seem, nothing is proven. They don’t make for easy reading, though.

This could be only the tip of a nasty iceberg

What is more, there are suggestions within the document that this is only the tip of a nasty iceberg.

Even those who have had the scales lifted from their eyes only over the last few days must fear that messrs Servis and Navarro (plus sundry others) won’t be the only ones implicated? With suggestions of five years’ jail time being bandied about, the phrase ‘plea bargain’ is already hanging in the air.

Even if no other names ever come to light, it will be an interesting exercise to see precisely which trainers’ strike rates fall off a cliff over the next few months as the juice runs out.

Needless to say, such dramatic developments are grist to the mill of those who are already opposed to the sport – and before anyone abroad feels minded to look down their noses at the States, let’s just remember that they are by no means the only major racing jurisdiction to suffer such infamy. 

Think Mahmood Al Zarooni and his steroids in England and Dubai, or Gerard Butler, or the likes of Philip Fenton and Pat Hughes in Ireland, or the Aquanita and cobalt cases in Australia, where champion trainer Darren Weir did his bit to tarnish the sport’s name.

The fact is, that wherever there is money to be made, someone will be tempted to gain a corrupt edge. The job of the authorities is to make it as hard as they can for them to succeed, and ensure such behaviour is not allowed to become endemic. 

With such a heavy black cloud, it may be hard to locate a silver lining – not least in the context of racing’s being under the microscope like never before in North America after last year’s equine fatalities at Santa Anita and various New York Times exposés (some salacious, others justified).

‘If this doesn’t wake us up as an industry, I don’t know what will’

But is this – maybe, just maybe – the chance for which US racing has been waiting to finally put their house in order? Synthetic surfaces, raceday medication, whip abuse – all of the above will come under scrutiny.

Much respected trainer Graham Motion was among the first to respond in light of the federal indictments, suggesting this debacle could spur a necessary readjustment process. “If this doesn’t wake us up as an industry, I don’t know what will, I’m afraid,” said the Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, speaking to the Blood-Horse. “It’s our own fault. We let it happen. This shows we are incapable of policing our own sport and that’s a sad situation.

“A sad day for racing but a long time coming,” he added. “A good day for those who try to play by the rules – we will all be better for it.”

A crucial step in that regard would be the adoption of the controversial Horse Racing Integrity Act, promoting federal regulation in the area of dope testing and medication. 

The sport has been divided on the issue, with much opposition to such outside regulation. Well, that’s what happens when you hit rock bottom; if you can’t self-police, then you have to be policed.

Mind you, cleaning the Augean stables was a Herculean task; this promises to be hardly any less labour-intensive. Surely, though, it’s worth it.

I love American racing. Please don’t let them destroy it.

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