Horse racing needed another story in order to attract national attention. In the past year we had the crisis on fatalities at Santa Anita. Then there was the story about the 2018 winner of the Kentucky Derby failing a drug test that could have prevented him from even running at Churchill Downs. So in the past week we read about the FBI arresting 29 racing figures for allegations of illegal drugging. Oh, one of those arrested was the trainer of the horse that finished first in the 2019 Kentucky Derby.
The arrests are the result of indictments obtained by the Southern District of New York, justifiably feared by society’s miscreants. The defendants include thoroughbred and harness trainers, veterinarians, and enterprising entrepreneurs aware of the market for illegal drugs in racing. The most prominent trainers are Jason Servis, trainer of Maximum Security, and Jorge Navarro, trainer of X Y Jet who won the $2.5 million Golden Shaheen last March in Dubai.
The allegations are sickening. You can read the main indictment here. In addition to giving Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED’s) to top race horses, the defendants are accused of using and producing drugs that cannot be detected by traditional testing mechanisms. One defendant accused Navarro of surreptiously killing six horses. X Y Jet died in January, 2020, of a heart attack according to Navarro. The indictment does not charge crimes regarding any of the seven fatalities. (While the drugs are referred to as “performance enhancing,” it often comes at the cost of making a horse more susceptible to injury, including ones that result in its death.)
The indictments represent the most significant threat to the viability of racing since the Santa Anita fatalities. As can be expected, the responses from leading industry figures are predictable.
If one were a bettor, the odds-on favorite for making the most tone-deaf and inane comments would be Ed Martin, President and CEO of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, who took the time to pen an op-ed in The Paulick Report. Martin proclaimed “this is not a negative for the racing industry, but testimony to the fact that the system can and does work….”
That’s right, the system works. That is, it works if prominent trainers can administer thousands of illegal drug doses over a period of years to horses running in some of the world’s most prestigious races, but are not brought to justice by state racing commissions and regulatory bodies but by federal law enforcement agencies. (The nonsensical “system works” pap was also pronounced by Joe Appelbaum who heads up the New York organization representing owners and trainers.)
Martin explains how well the system works:
“The severity of the allegations should come as no surprise. Illegal drug manufacturing and distribution, falsified veterinary records and prescriptions, fraudulent labeling, and illegal doping of horses have all been openly discussed at ARCI meetings in recent years….”
“Openly discussed” in “recent years.” This is the organization that represents the state agencies responsible for enforcing anti-doping policies who apparently were powerless to combat widespread abuse. Over those same years that the “enforcers” were fretting about doping, there have been people willing to speak out about the doping abuse in racing. Martin would disparage those folks as a disservice to the sport, even suggesting they were the real problem.
Martin is also a constant proponent of racing being “clean” – indeed, the most drug-free of major sports – because less than one per cent of post-race testing indicates a drug overage. He never says that’s because the testing is limited and cannot identify those illegal drugs that are at the core of the federal indictments.
Martin’s real agenda is to say whatever he needs to in order to prevent what a sizeable chunk of people think is the only real answer to save racing – the Horse Racing Integrity Act, sponsored by a bipartisan majority (really!) in the House of Representatives. As he said, “nobody needed a federal bill to make [the indictments] happen….” That is, of course, true. You may agree that two trainers administering thousands of illegal drug dosages over a period of years is an acceptable price to pay for not disturbing the incompetence, inertia and indifference of many of the 38 separate state regulatory bodies.
As with many trade organizations, the ARCI exists to protect the interests of its constituents, and not the broader interests of those affected by the decisions of those members. And the Horse Racing Integrity Act would do just that. It would replace the current patchwork of 38 separate state bodies that are responsible for setting drug policies, investigating abuses and meting out discipline to violators. The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) would oversee an independent body that would assume the drug oversight from the state bodies.
One of the most significant problems confronting racing is that no one is in charge. In addition to those 38 state agencies, we have the ARCI, RMTC, NTRA, NHBPA (and its state affiliates) and, of recent vintage, the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition. I seriously think that if you asked a casual observer to name one figure associated with horse racing, the majority would pick Bob Baffert.
Graham Motion, who supports the federal legislation and is one of the sport’s more respected trainers, recently said in Thoroughbred Daily News, “We cannot police our own sport. … we can’t just keep on creating committees.” Putting USADA in charge of drug policy and enforcement would not mean they were in charge of the whole sport. But it would mean there would be a national, credible, and independent voice that could address the inevitable future scandals.
And let us make no mistake. There will be future scandals. The allegations of the indictments are, in part, based on wiretaps and informants, and now there are reams of documents that will prove to be incriminating. How would you like to be one of the “customers” of the ring run by defendants Scott Mangini and Scott Robinson who allegedly sold “millions of dollars worth of … PEDs” between 2011 and 2020? I doubt that Servis and Navarro were their only customers and I suspect there will be some massive flipping about to occur.
Can the racing industry respond in a meaningful manner? I seriously doubt it. The rash of anodyne statements from leading organizational figures (“the health and safety of the horses is paramount, blah, blah”) is no longer going to be sufficient. Years of inaction on meaningful reform means there is no sensible person – either inside or outside the sport – who thinks the industry is capable of self-regulating.
It is time to realize that the real decision makers are the general public and their representatives in elected bodies throughout the country. When The Washington Post editorializes in support of abolishing racing – “Horse racing has outlived its time” – the bell is definitely tolling.
If those with knowledge, passion and more than rhetorical care for the safety of horses do not martial their forces, the end of racing may very well be near.