Jason Servis, Jorge Navarro among 27 alleged by government to have administered illegal medications to horses
Federal prosecutors in New York on Monday unsealed indictments accusing 27 individuals, including the high-percentage trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis, of administering illegal medications to racehorses. One of the racehorses named in the indictment as receiving an illegal medication is Maximum Security, the champion 3-year-old of 2019 and first under the line in last year’s Kentucky Derby.
The indictments, which were brought by the District Attorney for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, accuse the individuals of participating in vast schemes to administer the substances and conceal the use of the compounds, which were obtained through internet pharmacies and veterinary practices, according to the indictments.
The indictments specifically reference the administration of a substance similar to Epogen, a trade name for the blood-building drug erythropoietin, to harness horses trained by Nicholas Surick and other Standardbred trainers, as well as the use of several other manufactured substances in horses trained by Servis and Navarro.
“These customized drugs were designed to be undetectable to normal testing protocols,” said Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. District Attorney for the Southern District of New York, at a press conference on Monday. He characterized the substances “as illegal and dangerous to horses.”
Both Navarro, 45, and Servis, 62, were arrested on Monday morning, law-enforcement officials said, as investigators from the FBI descended on their barns for exhaustive searches.
The arrests and release of the indictments shook the racing world to its foundation on Monday morning. Both Navarro and Servis have run up extraordinary win rates over their careers, and rumors about illegal drug use has dogged both trainers for years, in large part because both are remarkably skilled at turning claiming horses into stakes runners.
The accusations come at a time when the racing world is attempting to counter criticism that the sport is not doing enough to protect its athletes, based on a spate of deaths at Santa Anita last year. As such, the revelations in the indictment are likely to lead to renewed calls for stricter regulation of the sport.
The indictment states that Servis administered an “illegal” medication called SGF-1000 to Maximum Security in advance of the Pegasus Stakes on June 16 at Monmouth Park. According to the indictment, New Jersey regulators pulled an out-of-competition sample from the horse “on or about June 5” but did not detect the substance, which is available at some internet pharmacies and is currently marketed as a substance composed of amino acids “to promote rejuvenation and recovery from training.”
The indictment further states that Servis directed a veterinarian, who is not named, “to falsify records to make it appear as if the racehorse had received ‘Dex,’ rather than SGF-1000.” The shorthand is likely to refer to dexamethasone, a regulated corticosteroid that reduces inflammation.
Maximum Security on Feb. 29 won the inaugural Saudi Cup, a race with a purse of $20 million. Most famously, Maximum Security crossed the wire first in the 2019 Kentucky Derby but was disqualified from first for interference and placed 17th.
The indictment claims that the substance was obtained from Kristian Rhein, who has a veterinary practice at Belmont Park, and Alexander Chan. The indictment says that the two have “engaged in efforts to secretly distribute and administer adulterated and misbranded [performance-enhancing drugs] and to counsel racehorse trainers and/or owners on the use of such substances.”
In Navarro’s case, the indictment alleges the administration of illegal substances marketed as pain blockers to X Y Jet on several instances in 2019, including prior to the horse’s start in an allowance race on Feb. 13 at Gulfstream Park in Florida and again while in Dubai for the Golden Shaheen Stakes later that year. X Y Jet won both races.
He died earlier this year of an apparent heart attack at the age of 8.
The indictment includes intercepted phone calls and texts from Navarro to various other individuals named in the indictment, including Servis. In one of the intercepted calls between Servis and Navarro, Servis is quoted as saying that he has been using SGF-1000 “on everything almost,” according to the indictment. Navarro then cuts Servis off and says “Jay, we’ll sit down and talk about this [expletive]. I don’t want to talk about this [expletive] on the phone.”
According to the indictment, both Servis and Navarro procured SGF-1000 from Medivet Equine in Kentucky, and it accuses the company’s co-founder Mike Kegley of conspiring with the trainers and veterinarians to mislabel shipments of the substance, which is not regulated by the FDA, across state lines.
SGF-1000 was analyzed by racing regulators in 2014 and found to contain no known performance-enhancing ingredients, according to Dr. Mary Scollay, the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, which is funded by the racing industry. However, Scollay cautioned that the substance could have had its formula changed in the ensuing years. She also reiterated that many internet pharmacies make unsubstantiated claims routinely for substances that are not known to have any efficacy.
In the case of SGF-1000, the main ingredient was “I think, sheep collagen,” Scollay recollected. That substance and others like it that are ingredients in similar products would not trigger a positive in drug tests because the substances do not have a known pharmacological effect and are therefore left off drug screenings.
While Scollay said she was not commenting directly on the allegations in the indictment, she also said that regulation of substances that do not contain known performance-enhancing agents is still problematic.
“It’s clear that people are using it because they think it gives them an advantage, and if they used it with the goal of it being a performance enhancer, then that’s a problem, regardless of what the effects are,” Scollay said.
Dr. Scott Stanley, a professor of analytical chemistry at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center, performed the analysis of SGF-1000 while at the University of California-Davis. He said he could not comment on his characterization of the substance based on that analysis because he has already been contacted to provide testimony as part of the case
Stanley did say that the formulation of the substance could have changed “multiple times” since the analysis was conducted six years ago.
“None of those things are regulated by the FDA,” Stanley said. “So because they are not approved products, there’s nothing stopping them from changing it frequently.”
The indictment also charges the New Jersey harness trainer Nicholas Surick with administering the blood-doping drug Epogen, and alleges that he concealed a horse that had been administered the drug from New Jersey regulators when they attempted to pull an out-of-competition sample from the horse in mid-2018. Surick, 31, is second in the nation in wins this year, as he was last year. Three other harness trainers were named in a separate indictment.
An indictment separate from both of those two indictments accuses the operators of the notorious internet pharmacy horseprerace.com of selling “millions of dollars’ worth of various misbranded and adulterated PEDs to customers across the United States and abroad.” The owners named in the indictment are Scott Robinson and Scott Mangini. As was the case with SGF-1000, racing regulators in the past have tested products offered for sale at the pharmacy and found that the claims for the products were deeply misleading.
The indictment states that the FBI and FDA conducted a “judicially authorized search of a PED manufacturing facility” operated by Robinson on Sept. 30, 2019, and that the agents conducting the search “seized misbranded and adulterated PEDs, chemicals, and electronic equipment.”
An additional indictment accuses Sarah Izhaki and her daughter Ashley Lebowitz of selling substances characterized as masking agents and an “adulterated and misbranded version of the drug erythropoietin” to undercover operatives posing as racehorse trainers and racehorse owners. The indictment quotes Izhaki as saying that one of the substances, referred to as “The Devil,” is “something very new, you put it in the horse, you can use coke: it will come back negative.”
At Palm Meadows in Boynton Beach, Fla., all was quiet by late morning in and around Navarro’s Barn 32 and Servis’s Barn 18 as stablehands caught up on their chores. That was in stark contrast to the wee hours of Monday, said several neighboring trainers and their assistants.
One assistant said she arrived for work at 4 a.m., and “I saw that already both barns were surrounded by five or six SUVs with the blue lights flashing and everything barricaded. It was pretty surreal.”
Training was not halted, however, for those not involved in the raids. One trainer said he was “riding in my golf cart on the path next to Navarro’s barn and asked if I could pass and train my horses, and they said go ahead.”
As of Monday afternoon, Servis had three horses entered for Friday’s card at Aqueduct in New York, but those horses are expected to be scratched. Owners of horses trained by Servis and another New York-based trainer named in the indictment, Mike Tannuzzo, are expected to have to make arrangements to move their horses to other trainers in the wake of the indictments, which will likely lead to summary suspensions from racing commissions. Servis’s assistant Henry Argueta is also named in one of the indictments.
NYRA, the operator of Aqueduct, indicated on Monday that all of those named in the indictment would be barred from the grounds regardless of any action taken by racing commission.
“There is absolutely no place in our sport for those who would administer illegal or banned substances to racehorse under their care,” said Pat McKenna, a spokesman for NYRA.
The Stronach Group, which owns Gulfstream, Santa Anita, Golden Gate Fields, Laurel and Pimlico, also said it would scratch any horses entered by those named in the indictment.
Feds: X Y Jet drugged as part of ‘Navarro Doping Program’
From February of 2018 to February of 2020, trainer Jorge Navarro entered horses in approximately 1,480 races. And during that span, it turns out he was doing so under the watchful eyes of federal agents.
In a bombshell indictment handed down Monday by the U.S. District Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York, the leading conditioner, who has saddled Grade 1 winners such as X Y Jet and Sharp Azteca, was said to be the ringleader in a “widespread scheme.”
Navarro is accused of concealing the purchase and use of performance-enhancing drugs along with trafficking agents to mask their use in horses, including the Group 1 winner X Y Jet. Referred to in the indictment as the “Navarro Doping Program,” it tied in fellow trainer Jason Servis, who counts champion 3-year-old Maximum Security among his runners.
Veterinarians Erica Garcia, Seth Fishman and Gregory Skelton were each named as defendants who aided Navarro in manufacturing and administrating “at Navarro’s discretion,” according to the indictment. Four others are said to have manufactured and illegally shipped PEDs “for Navarro’s benefit.”
“In many cases,” the indictment reads,” the customized PEDs were designed to be untestable.”
According to documents, Fishman was paid “tens of thousands of dollars” by Navarro for blood-building PEDs; drugs that increased a horse’s “V02 Max” levels, or breathing; and a shot referred to as “Frozen Pain.” Navarro once sent text messages, documents show, requesting “1000 pills asap.”
Navarro is also tied into a scheme by harness trainer Nick Surick, who allegedly provided Navarro a substance referred to as “red acid,” which the indictment says reduces joint inflammation.
Another harness trainer, Chris Oakes, is said to have developed a PED known as “drench” and supplied to Navarro. It is “designed to rapidly increase a racehorse’s performance during a race and be undetectable in drug tests.”
Navarro, who according to Equibase has won 1,225 races, used straw purchasers and false names to ship the PEDs, according to federal investigators, as well as “bodies of horses that have died on the property of Navarro or his co-conspirators.”
Surick once stated on an intercepted call regarding Navarro that, “You know how many f------ horses he f------ 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?”
X Y Jet, the multiple stakes winner for Navarro who won the 2019 Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1), was said to be on PEDs when winning that race. On Feb. 13, 2019, just more than a month before the Golden Shaheen, Oakes visited Navarro’s barn to administer a drug. Navarro told Oakes that if “if they stop you,” to tell track officials he’s an owner visiting the horse.
Once in Dubai, Navarro allegedly administered X Y Jet a substance called “monkey" and told a co-conspirator that, “I gave it to him through 50 injections. I gave it to him through the mouth.”
Fishman congratulated Navarro via text message after the Golden Shaheen, to which Navarro replied: “u are a big part of it.”
X Y Jet died in January at age 8 of a heart attack. He was owned by California-based Rockingham Ranch, Gelfenstein Farm and David Bernsen.
Nanoosh, another horse co-owned by Rockingham Ranch, was mentioned in a May 29, 2019, conference call “with the operators of a racing stable in California,” according to the indictment. Nanoosh’s poor performance of late came up, at which point Navarro was asked if the trainer was giving the horse “all the s---.” Navarro responded: “He gets everything.” Rockingham Ranch has campaigned, among others, Eclipse Award-winning sprinters Roy H and Stormy Liberal.
Navarro, in his mid-40s, ended Todd Pletcher’s 15-year run of Championship Meet titles last year at Gulfstream Park while in Dubai. With 31 victories thus far in the 2019-2020 meet, he left the weekend seven behind Pletcher and in fourth overall.
Navarro stables horses at Gulfstream Park West (formerly known as Calder) and Palm Meadows Training Center, where Federal Bureau of Investigation agents were said to have been present Monday before documents were unsealed.
Indicted on two counts, Navarro faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Indictment: Servis covered up Maximum Security’s PED use
With the dust still settling from Maximum Security’s historic disqualification from the 2019 Kentucky Derby last June, trainer Jason Servis nearly had another controversy on his hands.
According to an indictment handed down Monday by the U.S. District Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York, which includes extensive allegations of Servis doping his horses with an illegal substance, Maximum Security had received a shot of SGF-1000 in the days leading up to his return race. But New Jersey regulators wanted a drug test.
The colt, already a winner of the Florida Derby (G1) and first across the wire in the Kentucky Derby, was to make his comeback in the June 16 Pegasus Stakes. In his system was a substance that, per the indictment, “is a customized (performance-enhancing drug) purportedly containing ‘growth factors.’”
Veterinarian Kristian Rhein, named as a defendant, reassured Servis, saying, “There’s no test for it in America.” RELATED: Wests waiting to hear Servis' side of the story
Still, SGF-1000 could show up as a positive for the anti-inflammatory dexamethasone, more commonly referred to as “dex.” According to the indictment, Servis had another veterinarian falsify records saying Maximum Security was administered dex in case the test flagged it.
The Gary and Mary West homebred was beaten across the wire for the only time in his career in the Pegasus after a stumble at the break. Since then, he went on to earn the Eclipse Award 3-year-old championship with victories in the Haskell (G1) and Cigar Mile (G1). On Feb. 29, Maximum Security debuted as an older horse with a victory in the $20 million Saudi Cup overseas.
As the Wests continued to fight the legalities of the first Kentucky Derby disqualification for interference in the race’s history, Servis was allegedly drugging his star colt.
Servis’ misdoings may have come on federal investigators’ radar when they looked into fellow trainer Jorge Navarro, who the U.S. District Attorney’s Office says conducted a “widespread scheme” to obtain, conceal and use illegal substances on his racehorses.
On March 5, 2019, a call between Servis and Navarro was intercepted during which, according to the indictment, Servis recommended SGF-1000 to Navarro.
“I’ve been using it on everything almost,” Servis said, according to the indictment.
Navarro said he had more than a dozen horses using SGF-100. The conversation didn't last much longer. "Jay, we'll sit down and talk about this s---," Navarro said. "I don’t want to talk about this s--- on the phone, OK?"
In addition to stabling in New Jersey last summer, Maximum Security spent time in New York as connections mulled a run at the Travers Stakes (G1) at Saratoga. Accordingly, Servis’ New York-based assistant, Henry Argueta, is also named as a defendant in this case.
On May 8, 2019, investigators tapped into a conversation between Servis and Argueta about administering PEDs to World of Trouble, who the next month won Belmont Park’s Jaipur Invitational (G1) in his career finale.
To hide the use of PEDs in horses, Servis enlisted people such as Alexander Chan, who according to his LinkedIn profile has worked as a track veterinarian for the New York Racing Association since October of 2012. According to the indictment, Chan kept “false billing records that did not reflect drugs Chan had injected into racehorses under Servis’ control, and falsified his own prescription records” in an effort to conceal their use from investigators.
There were close calls, too.
Documents detail a Feb. 18, 2019, conversation via text message between Servis and Navarro. Servis warned his peer of a racing official near the barn where PEDs were stored and administered. In an intercepted call Navarro made later that day to another party, Navarro said, "He would've caught our asses f------ pumping and pumping and fuming every f------- horse (that) runs today.”
While legal outside of withdrawal times at racetracks, clenbuterol is another substance that appears in findings about Servis. Chan is said to have provided it to Servis’ horses with a valid prescription. Investigators also heard Servis and his assistant, Argueta, discussing “the illegality” of clenbuterol uses in a horse.
Recently, Hall of Fame finalist Mark Casse advocated for a total ban on the respiratory treatment which when used in excess can act as a steroid. In an op/ed published March 2 by The Thoroughbred Daily News, Casse wrote that clenbuterol “leads to unimaginable form reversals on a weekly basis,” something for which Servis is often chided about by gamblers.
In a July 2018 interview with Horse Racing Nation, Servis denied cheating while on a personal hot streak, winning at the time with 54 percent of starters at Monmouth Park and 49 percent at Belmont Park.
“People are talking a lot of s---,” Servis said, “and I’m really not happy about it.”
He defended his record, saying he spots horses carefully and can thus be expected to win more often.
“If I can’t be 3-1, I don’t really want to be in there,” Servis told Horse Racing Nation. Indicted on two counts, Servis faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
That was months before Maximum Security debuted the following December at Gulfstream Park with a $16,000 claiming tag, then ascended to become the world’s best dirt horse in training.