What It Takes For A Reporter To Call Out A Cheating Trainer

We received a frustrated letter to the editor this past weekend with a familiar tune. A horse had won a graded stakes race in impressive fashion, continuing a trend of improved form that had started after the horse left the barn of one trainer for another. Why, the reader asked, did they not see coverage of the race dotted with warnings or aspersions about the trainer and his horse’s meteoric rise?

It’s a question we’ve heard before when a trainer has what a horseplayer considers an unusually high win percentage or when a horse turns in a dominant performance.

‘Why are you too scared to just say the guy is cheating?’ people will ask, usually with too many exclamation points. ‘Why do you promote these trainers all the time?’ they’ll write at the end of a race preview or recap.

There are a few reasons we elected not to run that letter, and a few reasons we’re not going to put out articles accusing someone of illegal activity based on suspicions or statistics.

First of all, it’s important to understand there are different types of coverage on this and other publications. In our case, stories fall into the basic categories of news, features, and investigations.

If a trainer who readers are suspicious of wins a big race, we cannot pretend they didn’t win it. We have to report on the results of that race. Likewise, when a trainer has a top contender for an upcoming race, we have to acknowledge that. These types of stories tend to come with quotes from owners, jockeys, and yes, trainers. Quotes may or may not ring as genuine to us or to our readers, but our job as reporters is to report those quotes and that information accurately. It is not for us to opine on them in those spaces.

Secondly, we get a lot of questions about why we don’t “expose” a trainer for what a reader may believe is obvious cheating. Many readers may not realize how difficult that is to do – or how much work goes into an investigation of any kind. For us to report on an illegal drug program, we need details. What substance is being given, how it’s given, to which horses, when, and where it comes from. We need proof of all those details, and we need to be able to verify that proof independently. There are relatively few people with access to those details in a barn. Probably, it comes down to the trainer, the trainer’s supplier, and some number of staff.

There’s a reason it took FBI wire taps to reveal the web of connections between indicted trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis and their alleged doping rings – it’s because they believed they were giving horses a performance advantage that would benefit their connections financially, but only if they kept their programs a secret.

One section of the government’s evidence included in the March 2020 federal indictment included a mention that Servis warned Navarro via text message about the presence of a racing official in the barn area where the two trainers allegedly stored and administered performance-enhancing drugs to horses. In a call later intercepted between Navarro and co-defendant Michael Tannuzzo, Navarro said “[H]e would’ve caught our assess [expletive] pumping and pumping and fuming every [expletive] horse [that] runs today.”

But he didn’t catch them.

Trainers who are giving horses an illegal edge know how to evade testing, and they know to avoid being caught red-handed by the racing investigators who walk the barns daily in some (but not all) states. Their careers depend on keeping that a secret. They and their suppliers have financial incentive to make sure they leave no proof – in sales records, in the feed room, or, as we saw in the indictment, in veterinary records. They have power over their staff members, who would certainly lose their jobs if they reported their bosses and who may legitimately fear they’d never find work on the backstretch again if they crossed someone powerful.

A reporter like me – with limited access to barns, no subpoena power, and no wire taps – has two choices: call and ask a trainer if they’re cheating, or hope someone on the inside can help me get the proof I need. The former isn’t likely to help much, since they will either truthfully tell me they’re not or lie. It will put them on notice, and if they’re doing something they shouldn’t be, they’re probably going to take that activity more underground than it already was, making it harder for me or anyone else to catch them. The latter is extremely unlikely, but my inbox is always open.

I like to think the Paulick Report has gained the reputation it has for investigative reporting because of how carefully we verify our information before it’s published. When pursuing something controversial, we try to not only report the story as fairly as we can, but to verify and reverify every detail to ensure our confidence in the facts we have. Sometimes that means leaving out salacious details, and sometimes it means passing on stories altogether if we can’t get the evidence we need. We approach stories this way, yes, partly because we don’t want to be hit with a libel suit, but also because we believe these standards foster trust in our readers.

None of this is to say that we don’t have our own opinions about what we see out there – just that we can’t base a true investigative story on an opinion and a win percentage. Opinions, after all, are like … well, you know the phrase.

The post What It Takes For A Reporter To Call Out A Cheating Trainer appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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