Yet there was Navarro, after the race, lamenting to reporters that the achievement had arrived “at a bad time.” The horse had suffered an ankle injury during the race, he said, which “diminishes the win."
“The horses always come first,” Navarro said.
It was the right thing to say. Navarro’s sport was under scrutiny after a disturbing spate of horse deaths at California’s Santa Anita racetrack; his comments echoed an industry-wide effort to project prioritization of the animals that service a $100 billion global industry.
It was also a lie — if, that is, you believe the sweeping federal indictments unsealed last week against Navarro and 26 others in his industry.
As FBI agents raided barns in Florida, federal prosecutors in Manhattan unveiled charges that paint Navarro and others not as reverent caretakers but ruthless cheats who gamed the system to administer performance-enhancing drugs with names such as “monkey” and “red acid” to their horses. Those drugs and others, prosecutors said, were engineered to avoid detection by regulators and net the conspirators untold millions of dollars — all to the detriment of the animals, dozens of which died prematurely as a result. Navarro and others face multiple counts of conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and administer misbranded drugs, a felony that carries up to five years in prison per charge.
The indictments, combined with the growing controversy over deaths on the track, have prompted calls for a federal takeover of the industry and a transition of oversight from state commissions to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which regulates Olympic athletes. Backers of the Horseracing Integrity Act, a bill before Congress, have been advocating for these changes for months — and, in some cases, years.
“I’ve been in the game since I was 12,” said Terry Finley, the 56-year-old founder of West Point Thoroughbreds. “This is the biggest thing that has happened to our business in a very long time. … If we don’t take advantage and will ourselves to change, we’re dead.”
‘That’s the way we do it’
The indictments describe a network of assistant trainers, veterinarians, drugmakers and unidentified owners who, the feds say, conspired to circumvent authorities and illegally boost the performance of horses. Drugs were mailed across state lines under false labels, prosecutors say, and low-level conspirators were encouraged to sneak or bluff their way past officials by any means necessary to inject horses.
In one incident from May, a California stable operator spoke with Navarro about a horse named Nanoosh as authorities recorded the phone call. The operator asked whether Navarro was giving the horse “all the s---.”
“Everything,” Navarro replied. “He gets everything.”
Central to the government’s case are Navarro and Jason Servis, another top trainer. Each has risen from industry anonymity to the doorstep of its upper echelon through the success of dozens of horses, including Navarro’s X Y Jet and Servis’s Maximum Security, which won last year’s Kentucky Derby before being disqualified for interference. In interviews with The Washington Post, trainers, owners and horse racing officials described the indicted trainers as unlikely bedfellows.
Servis is a mild-mannered 62-year-old who kept a tight circle and described himself in media interviews as averse to “fanfare.” He has touted an unconventional training style that favors “slow, steady gallops” to speed workouts. “I just think it’s really a lot easier on the horse,” Servis told the Daily Racing Form in May.
Yet the indictment alleges Servis was doping Maximum Security with a banned drug known as SGF-1000, which speeds up tissue repair and increases endurance. Maximum Security was transferred to the care of renowned trainer Bob Baffert after the indictments were unsealed. Servis did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
But no one named in the indictments cheated with more zeal than Navarro, according to prosecutors. (Navarro did not return phone messages seeking comment; court records didn’t list a lawyer for him.) Navarro started his career working for his stepfather, trainer Julian Canet, as a groomer and hot walker, minimum-wage stable work that includes walking horses after workouts to cool them down. Navarro started training horses himself in Florida in 2010. A decade later, his horses have earned more than $34 million in purses.
Navarro is a bulging and brash figure whose race-day outbursts have become commonplace to regulars at Gulfstream, where many of his horses run, and his home track, Monmouth Park in New Jersey. He is known as the rare trainer who doesn’t pay close attention to his horses when they train, his rivals told The Post, preferring to hold court while his assistants oversee the horses on the track.
Like a lot of trainers, Navarro has had his wrist slapped by racing authorities over the years. In 2013, he was suspended in Florida for prohibited race-day injections. Four years later, a video surfaced showing Navarro celebrating a victory with the winning horse’s owner. “That’s the juice!” the owner shouted.
“That’s the way we do it," Navarro proclaimed. "We f--- everyone.”
Some trainers now suspect the video inspired the FBI investigation.
“Navarro opened a can of worms with that video,” said Gregory D. Sacco, another Monmouth Park trainer. “I think they got greedy and sloppy. It defies logic to improve every horse you get. You can change shoeing equipment, surface, vitamins, but you can’t improve every horse.”
The demise of X Y Jet
While none of Navarro’s horses achieved Maximum Security’s level of fame, one did earn substantial recognition in 2015 and 2016 after galloping to a string of first-place finishes at Monmouth and Gulfstream. That horse, X Y Jet, remained a consistent top-three finisher for the next three-plus years.
Listening in last year, federal authorities were clued into a possible explanation for that success. Just two weeks after Navarro’s 1,000th win — the one he said was made bittersweet by Aztec Sense’s injury — agents intercepted calls and texts with Navarro as he scrambled to acquire drugs for X Y Jet in advance of a race at Gulfstream.
He was looking for “joint blockers,” illegal in horse racing, which mask the animal’s ability to feel pain and put horses at greater injury risk, according to prosecutors. Navarro urged one of his sources to impersonate the horse’s owner to bypass race officials and ensure safe delivery of the drugs.
“Drive through,” Navarro told Jordan Fishman, who also was charged in the case. “If they stop you, you are an owner and you come to Navarro’s barn.”
Later, prosecutors allege, Navarro told Servis how close he was to getting caught doping X Y Jet.
“[The track official] would’ve caught our asses f---ing pumping and pumping and fuming every f---ing horse [that] runs today," Navarro said, according to prosecutors.
X Y Jet won, netting his owners more than $31,000 in prize money. A month later, the horse won the Dubai Golden Shaheen race in the United Arab Emirates. That one was worth $2.5 million to the horse’s owners.
Then, two months ago, X Y Jet died of a heart attack. “He always fought against adversity,” Navarro said in a statement, “and despite the injuries that affected him during his career, he always brought out that kind of champion he was.”
Most horses that died in Navarro’s care didn’t get news releases. The government alleges some were euthanized in secret by Navarro and his co-conspirators to shield from public view the effects doping was having on their horses. In one intercepted conversation, Michael Tannuzzo, Navarro’s assistant trainer, tells someone: “You know how many f---ing horses [Navarro] f---ing 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?”
It was an open secret that Navarro was gaming the system, his fellow trainers said. Yet no one knew precisely how.
“We’ve all said the same thing: It has to be blood builders,” trainer Jane Cibelli said.
Blood builders are drugs that raise a horse’s red blood cell count, increasing muscle performance. They’re banned by every horse racing commission in the country for the injury risk they pose.
“They’ve cheated us all out of purse money and they’ve injured the industry, and I don’t know how long it will take to recoup,” Cibelli said. "Owners lose confidence; bettors lose confidence.”
Yet Sacco doesn’t believe the 27 indicted individuals are the only people gaming the system. “There’s more out there,” he said.
A wake-up call
Finley, the West Point Thoroughbreds owner, also serves on the board of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. He and other supporters of the Horseracing Integrity Act are working to convert the shock of the indictments into support for the bill, which he believes will root out cheaters and restore confidence in the sport.
“The tide is turning very, very quickly, especially in the ownership ranks, and the horsemen’s groups owe it to owners to heed that movement," Finley said. “It’s okay to evolve.”
“Ultimately we all want the same thing: a clean sport," he added. "Just give us a level playing field.”
The bill’s opponents are wary of centralized oversight in an industry defined by complex, historical relationships among trade organizations, interest groups and state regulators. Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association chairman Alan Foreman, who testified against the bill in January on Capitol Hill, said he is not certain the USADA would have caught the alleged infractions of Navarro and Servis.
“You can have the best testing in the world, but you’re always going to have people try to beat the system,” he said.
Finley said the bill is not a panacea, only a start. The risk of not passing it, he said, is a world where the FBI no longer cares about doping in horse racing because bettors, fans and some horsemen have largely walked away.
“We cannot think they are our policemen," Finley said of the FBI. "If we don’t make definitive changes and bring USADA into our fold, people are going to forget about us. Our biggest risk is that the authorities and the public don’t beat us up anymore because no one cares and everyone knows it’s dirty.”
But, he said, if the allegations against Navarro and Servis spur action, “We’d owe those two a debt of gratitude, in a perverse kind of way.”