The Sport of Kings took a couple of more hits this summer in publicized incidents that involved — wait for it — illegal drug use on horses.
The most recent resulted from a YouTube video of trainer Jorge Navarro and owner Randal Gindi celebrating a win in Florida by Navarro’s brother, also a trainer. As the horse neared the finish line, the pair were yelling “the Juice Man” and “that’s how we do it, we fuck everyone” and claiming to have pocketed $20,000 from a wager with a bookie. (For those not conversant with common track parlance, “juice” refers to illegal drugs.)
The incident took place at a Monmouth Park bar. The track’s stewards fined Gindi and Navarro $5,000 each for conduct “extremely detrimental to racing,” and recommended that the New Jersy’s regulatory body increase the penalty, since the stewards levied the maximum they could.
Navarro was Monmouth’s leading trainer this year with a record-breaking 65 wins, shattering the record he set last year with 59. This year’s winning percentage was a remarkable 41%. According to Frank Angst of BloodHorse.com, he has a history of drug positives, serving a 60-day suspension in 2011-12 in Florida, and now faces a hearing in Florida after one of his horses tested positive for cocaine.
As disturbing as this is, it was easily matched earlier this summer by a federal criminal trial in which Murray Rojas, twice the leading trainer at Penn National, was convicted of 14 felony counts for drug violations. In trial testimony, another trainer, Stephanie Beattie, stated that she and between “95 and 98%” of other horsemen treated horses with illegal race-day medications, according to reporting by T.D. Thornton in TDN.com.
If you need more disturbing info on this, the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, representing their opinion of the interests of trainers and owners, provided legal support for Rojas. According to CEO Eric Hamelback, the NHBPA did so because of their view that the United States “Department of Justice overreached on what is clearly a state regulatory issue.”
While I suppose Hamelback can be praised for supporting the sovereignty clause of the Constitution’s 10th Amendment, it seems to be a strange case on which to plant the flag. Although in his statement he said the “court correctly found Ms. Rojas not guilty of charges related to this attempt to set a new legal precedent” on some charges, the allegations in the case, as well as the number of other individuals pleading guilty to related charges, belie his efforts to make her a sympathetic defendant.
According to the Paulick Report, Rojas was convicted on 14 of 21 felony counts covering a 12-year period. Four veterinarians pled guilty after being confronted with allegations of backdated records and falsified records. To overstate the obvious, we are not talking about an arguably innocent drug overage for one horse in one race. The testimony of trainer Beattie, who became an FBI informant, was a particularly damning indictment of the racing at Penn National.
Rojas was twice the leading trainer at Penn. Monmouth Park’s Jorge Navarro won five Monmouth training titles and twice broke the record for most wins during a meet. His astonishing win percentage of 41% this year is one that naturally raises quite a few eyebrows. As fellow trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. said to T.D. Thornton of TDN.com, Navarro “has a tremendous win percentage … you would have to look far and deep for anyone to say he’s that much superior to the rest of the trainers….”
That someone who’s winning percentage automatically draws suspicion of illegal drugging, and then yells in a track’s bar about juicing and “that’s how we do it” says little about either his intelligence or his commitment to the sport. Perhaps NHBPA CEO Hamelback will determine that Navarro’s First Amendment rights warrant the expenditures of his organization’s financial resources.
As disturbing as these two instances are, even more troubling is the protective attitude of some of the industry’s top figures in dismissing allegations that the sport has a serious problem, both in reality and in perception. A common refrain from these “leaders” is that there is no problem other than people speaking out about their perspective that there is a problem. If they would be silent, there would no longer be an issue.
Unfortunately, there are few in the sport who, if speaking honestly, would deny that illegal drugging is a major problem. And now we have two leading trainers who have brought that problem to the forefront — once again — through a federal prosecution and shooting off one’s mouth in a public setting.