View From The Eighth Pole: With Doping Scandal, Racing Itself Will Be On Trial

Innocent until proven guilty.

That mantra is at the heart of the American criminal justice system, whether we’re talking about someone holding a smoking gun while standing over a dead body or a Thoroughbred trainer caught on an FBI wiretap about “pumping and pumping and fuming every f—ing horse (that) runs today.”

So there is a presumption of innocence when it comes to trainers Jorge Navarro, Jason Servis and the 27 other individuals indicted last month in the Southern District of New York after a multi-year FBI investigation into alleged illegal doping of racehorses. Everyone is entitled to a fair trial or his or her day in court. I look forward to Navarro explaining his “pumping and pumping and fuming every f—ing horse” comment. I am eager to understand why Servis allegedly worked with a veterinarian to falsify records to cover-up use of a substance said to be a prohibited performance-enhancing drug.

Though presumed innocent, between now and their trial date, there are conditions attached to those charged with federal crimes and since released on bail.

At a pre-trial conference and arraignment for 19 of the defendants last week – conducted by telephone because of the coronavirus pandemic – U.S. District Court Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil discussed one of those conditions for release. It states that the individuals charged are not permitted to have any contact with racehorses “without supervision of the owner of the property where the horse is located.”

That sounds good on paper, but does it really prevent Navarro, Servis or any of the others from continuing to ply their trade while awaiting trial?

I don’t think so.

While state racing commissions or licensing agencies may suspend trainers, assistant trainers, veterinarians and others charged with felonies in this case, there is nothing that keeps any of them from setting up shop at a private farm or training center (presuming there is “supervision” by the owner of the property to conform with their bail conditions) and doing exactly the same thing they were allegedly doing at a pari-mutuel racetrack – with one wrinkle.

Because they can’t run horses in their own name, unlicensed trainers can prepare horses to run at private training centers and then find someone who is licensed and willing to be listed as the official trainer at time of entry. That individual’s name will be on the program and he will saddle the horse for its race – though he may have had nothing to do with training it. This activity, commonly known as use of a “program trainer,” is against racing regulations, but it’s a practice that has gone on for years in states that have indifferent regulators and tracks where the No. 1 objective is to get as many entries as possible to fill races.

Florida is one of those states, and the numerous training centers in the Ocala area – many of them recognized by Equibase to record “official” workouts – facilitate the use of program trainers. You may or may not have heard of some these facilities: Nelson Jones Training Center, Hunter Farm, Ocala Training Center, Classic Mile, Team Work Racing and Starting Gate Training Center, among others.

When trainer Alfred Lichoa was arrested recently with four other men and charged in the Southern District of New York with money laundering, sources in Ocala told the Paulick Report it was widely believed Lichoa had been acting as a program trainer for a number of outfits. Horses that ran this year in Lichoa’s name had workouts recorded at seven training centers, mostly around Ocala. Imagine how busy Lichoa must be each morning, if he was truly taking care of horses stabled at seven different places.

Florida is without a racing commission. The state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, a bureaucracy in Tallahassee, conducts drug testing and assigns a steward to Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs. I’m sure the DPMW’s director, Louis Trombetta, couldn’t care less whether unlicensed renegades are training horses on private property and then sending them to race in someone else’s name. Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs have enough trouble keeping an eye on their own stable areas, much less worry about what goes on at remote training centers.

This isn’t just a Florida problem. We’ve seen the same act play out in other regions: horses racing in one state are stabled at a private training center in a neighboring state, where unlicensed or suspended trainers and veterinarians flaunt racing authorities. Horse owners who encourage or permit this are a big part of the problem, too.

I believe in our criminal justice system. Jorge Navarro, Jason Servis and the others charged in this affair are innocent until proven guilty. They’ll have their day in court when they can dispute the charges and be judged by a jury of their peers.

Racing will also be on trial, but I’m afraid the industry’s overseers already have been proven guilty.  They are guilty of looking the other way for far too long, allowing cheaters to operate in the open and in the shadows away from the track, doing their medicinal magic with impunity.

That must change. If this sport wants to recover from the damaging blow that will be felt as this scandal unfolds in the coming months and years, it must create a national anti-doping policy with independent oversight. The current system is not working. Until someone comes up with a better plan, that means the only possible solution to this growing problem is the Horseracing Integrity Act, now before Congress.

That’s my view from the eighth pole.

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