Last July 27, a horse named Shekky Shebaz showed up in a $25,000 claimer at Saratoga, a cheap race where anyone can plunk down their money before the starting gates open and buy any horse in the field.
Up until then, Shekky Shebaz had been running exclusively at Presque Isle Downs, a track in Pennsylvania where the competition is typically a few rungs below places like Saratoga or Churchill Downs. And Shekky Shebaz hadn’t done much there, winning three times in 13 races while running almost exclusively against cheap horses.
But after winning at Saratoga, a longtime owner on the New York circuit named Michael Dubb and his partners bought the horse privately. They turned him over to Jason Servis, one of the hottest trainers in the country whose barn included Maximum Security, the colt that finished first in the Kentucky Derby but was disqualified for interference in the stretch.
Like a lot of horses that came under Servis’ care, the fortunes of Shekky Shebaz seemed to turn around almost immediately. A month later, he won a $100,000 stakes race at Saratoga. Then he finished second in a $150,000 race at Belmont. A month later, Servis took him to the prestigious Breeders’ Cup, where he finished third against some of the top grass sprinters in the world. Then in December, he picked up another win at the Claiming Crown stakes in Minnesota.
All told, Shekky Shebaz — a horse who could have been bought for $25,000 in July and had earned $102,775 over his first 13 races — had suddenly won $235,500 for his new owners and trainer in a little more than three months.
Had Shekky Shebaz simply come into his own as a 4-year-old running on grass for the first time? Had Servis’ training methods made a world of difference? Or, as many fans and people around the track suspected in recent years as horse after horse in his barn had shown almost inexplicable improvement, were performance-enhancing drugs involved?
After reading 84 pages' worth of indictments from the Southern District of New York on Monday naming Servis as one of 27 defendants who allegedly schemed to illegally dope racehorses, the evidence would plausibly point to an answer.
Right there, on page 28, the FBI has Servis on a wiretap with fellow trainer Jorge Navarro admitting to giving his horses a customized PED called SGF-1000, which is “intended to promote tissue repair and increase a racehorse’s stamina and endurance beyond its natural capability,” according to the indictment.
“I’ve been using it on everything almost,” Servis tells Navarro in a March 5 phone call. And in the biggest bombshell of the entire indictment, Servis is caught on a June phone call with veterinarian Kristian Rhein, who helped obtain the PEDs, discussing concerns that Maximum Security would test positive for SGF-1000 before running in a stakes race at Monmouth Park.
“They don’t even have a test for it … there’s no test for it in America,” Rhein reassured Servis, who allegedly got another veterinarian to falsify records to indicate that Maximum Security was given dexamethasone, a commonly used anti-inflammatory.
“I don’t want to talk about this (expletive) on the phone, OK,” Navarro said on the wiretap.
Jason Servis, among 27 people indicted Monday in a horse racing doping scheme, trained Maximum Security. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)
For generations, horse racing has been a sport rife with crooked trainers and veterinarians, taking advantage of the sport’s regulatory hodgepodge and a drug-testing system that isn’t nearly as advanced as the drugs being used. But it’s a problem the sport has been unable, and perhaps unwilling, to grapple with in a meaningful way.
As of today, that’s no longer going to work.
A sport whose economy relies on the trust of owners pouring millions into horseflesh and the confidence of gamblers that races are on the up-and-up can no longer be trusted.
It would be too aggressive to say the Southern District of New York delivered horse racing a death blow Monday, but unless the sport gets its act together quickly, you can go ahead and start reading the last rites.
That Servis, in particular, has been caught up in this doping scheme is a big deal — if not altogether unsurprising given the backside chatter about how he achieved his success.
According to Equibase, Servis’ horses have won 1,306 races and $52.2 million in his career, with much of that coming in the last few years.
From 2010-2016, Servis’ runners averaged $2.5 million annually in purses. But in 2017, his win percentage started shooting up from the low and mid-20% to around 30%, with a significant portion of that success coming with horses like Shekky Shebaz who were claimed or purchased and suddenly started winning once they got to his barn.
That led to owners like Gary and Mary West, who own Maximum Security, sending Servis higher-class horses that put him into the top echelon of the sport. Fewer than two weeks ago, he was in Saudi Arabia winning the first-ever $20 million race and cementing Maximum Security’s claim as the best horse in the world.
Or so we thought. What can we really believe anymore?
But for the horse racing community to do its typical circle-the-wagons thing and try to pin this completely on a couple dirty trainers while seeing no evil elsewhere in its ranks would rather quickly lead to the sport’s demise.
Yes, the evidence is overwhelming that Servis and Navarro, a fairly prominent trainer in New York, were doping horses — including one, stakes winner X Y Jet, who Navarro shot up with all kinds of illegal stuff. X Y Jet died of a heart attack in January.
But to believe that they were the only ones — instead of the only ones who got caught — would be to deny the hard truth that the Southern District of New York’s investigative work revealed.
Most of the 27 people indicted aren’t trainers. They’re vets and pharmacists and people who either made or misbranded drugs that weren’t approved by the FDA and, in some cases, weren’t approved for use in animals. They made and distributed things like “red acid,” which masks pain so that horses run through injuries, Epogen to boost red blood cell counts and snake venom to deaden a horse’s nerves.
This stuff doesn’t just boost performance, it allows injured horses to run when they shouldn’t be running. It puts their lives at risk. And it was available because there’s a market for it on every backstretch in the country.
Everything we suspected about the corrupt side of horse racing has now been exposed by the FBI in a way that should rock the sport to its core. A growing percentage of the public already thinks of horse racing as animal cruelty, particularly after the still-unexplained spate of deaths at Santa Anita last winter. Now a new sector of the American public will think of it as rigged.
A sport that relies on people placing bets on the outcome of races cannot exist in between those two realities in 2020. Horse racing can clean itself up and still survive — maybe — but as of Monday, the clock is ticking.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter.
Source: Read Full Article