Servis has been drugging “virtually all the racehorses under his control,” according to the charges issued by federal prosecutors for the Southern District of New York. The allegation will not come as a surprise to anyone in racing. Servis’s horses have had highly unlikely jumps in performance — none more so than Maximum Security, who went from a $16,000 claiming race to a first-place finish in the Kentucky Derby before disqualification last spring. The suspicion and gossip about Servis have been rampant for a number of years.
Then there is Navarro, notoriously nicknamed “Juice Man,” whose horses have tested positive for cocaine at tracks in New Jersey and Florida and who was suspended from racing in Florida for 60 days and banned for the entire 2013-14 season by Tampa Bay Downs for drugging offenses involving half a dozen mounts. Yet he has managed to keep thriving in the sport, right up until he was arrested as part of the federal government’s case against 27 people, including trainers, vets and drug distributors.
Servis and Navarro, as well as the others indicted, are of course entitled to the presumption of innocence. But the charging documents are full of details, including excerpts from wiretaps, that will make your blood boil until it shoots straight into the cerebral cortex. Horses allegedly were fed junk drugs with names such as “Red Acid” and “Frozen Pain” to mask their inflammations and enhance their performances. In Navarro’s barn, horses were subjected to something called “a drench,” a cocktail of enhancers shot into their stomach via a tube forced down the larynx and esophagus.
In a call intercepted between two of Navarro’s underlings, one of them said, “You know how many f------ horses he f------ killed and broke down that I made disappear?”
In the spring of 2019, Navarro won the $2.5 million Dubai Golden Shaheen with a horse named X Y Jet, an 8-year-old gelding that had endured multiple knee surgeries. Before the race, according to the indictment, Navarro gave the thoroughbred repeated shots of something called “Monkey.” He says on a wiretap: “I gave it to him through 50 injections. I gave it to him through the mouth.”
In January, X Y Jet, a notable sprinter, died of a heart attack after a routine gallop.
Another wiretap captures Navarro talking about how fellow trainer Servis warned him that a racing official was in the barn area where they both stored and administered drugs to their horses. Navarro was grateful for the heads-up, because otherwise the official “would’ve caught our asses f------ pumping and pumping and fuming every f------ horse [that] runs today.”
After reviewing the excruciating charges, National Thoroughbred Racing Association chief Alex Waldrop issued a statement calling them “abhorrent.” Yes, they are. But what’s equally abhorrent is that long before the indictments, plenty of people had reason to suspect Servis and Navarro were not taking great care of their reliant charges. Horse owners — wealthy people who didn’t need the winnings and were in it for the thrill — stabled their horses with them anyway.
X Y Jet was co-owned by a partnership that included Rockingham Ranch and Gelfenstein Farm. They knew the gelding had undergone three surgeries for knee chips, but Navarro raced him this past spring anyway. The horse was so “moody,” as Navarro admitted at one point, that people were afraid to groom him. Must have been his natural temper. It couldn’t have been abuse.
Servis trained Maximum Security for Gary and Mary West, who have been in the game for 30 years. They knew Servis’s winning percentages were extraordinarily high: 45 percent at Gulfstream one season, 40 percent or better at Belmont Park and Monmouth. Must have been his slow gallop method.
Within the sport, powerful coalitions of horsemen, such as the Jockey Club and the Water Hay Oats Alliance, voice the best intentions for the animals.
A number of horsemen and horsewomen, families such as Arthur Hancock’s, have been campaigning for a zero medication tolerance and a return to water, oats and hay. Others have called for a national governing body to replace the piecemeal state racing organizations with their slack disciplinary systems. Proposed congressional legislation would establish an independent anti-doping agency.
But none of that by itself gets at the heart of the problem. None of it gets at conscience.
For one thing, the substances named in the indictments mostly evaded drug testing. For another, none of the proposals would prevent a trainer from overworking and over-racing a horse. Navarro entered horses in 1,480 races from 2018 to 2020, Servis in more than 1,080.
Before any measure can be effective, the rationalizing has to stop. Thirty horses had fatal breakdowns at Santa Anita last year — and it wasn’t just the rain on the track, as so many owners like to say. In 2018, an average of nearly 10 horses per week died at tracks all across America, a far higher fatality rate than at their overseas counterparts.
Good horsepeople must form a moral blockade and utterly shun those they suspect of drugging and masking injuries. You don’t need a positive drug test or an indictment to suspend them from your professional alliances, your personal company, your breeding sheds and your stables. You know who they are. Everyone in the barn area knows. They’re the ones who need a law to do the right thing by a horse. They’re the ones who stable too many mounts and race them far too often and medicate them far too much.
Stop handing them horses. Just stop. Take the reins back.