Latest doping charges a reminder that horse racing needs fundamental changes

Horse racing doping
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Let’s start here: All but the most cynical among us with a passion for sports – or for a single sport – cling to an illusion of purity. To the idea that college coaches don’t buy recruits. That runners and cyclists and home run hitters don’t inject themselves with performance enhancing drugs. That baseball teams don’t steal the other teams’ signals. That players and referees don’t bet on games. It is a fragile position, a fairy tale where disbelief is suspended in service of escapist pleasure. And we know this. When that illusion is dashed, and it almost always is at some point, we retrench to a lesser position of near-purity: There are always a few bad actors, we reason, but most of my favorite sport is as clean as a whistle. We just have to flush out those bad actors who are giving us a bad name.

That approach gives us comfort. It’s human nature to seek an outlier when the goodness of our sports devotion is challenged. The problem is this: It’s rarely just outliers. Instead, we get these light-bulb moments that illuminate the broader reality.

The BALCO doping scandal of the late 1990s and early 2000s provided the foundational story of widespread PED use in baseball and track and field. It wasn’t just McGwire and Sosa, it was a whole lot of other baseball players, too. It wasn’t just Marion Jones, it was a whole lot of other track athletes, too. The Festina bust before the 1998 Tour de France exposed the rampant doping in grand tour cycling, a reality driven home later by Lance Armstrong’s admissions, apologies, and, to be fair, his insistence that he was only doing what everybody else was doing, just better. None of this meant that everybody was cheating, but that cheating was part of the system.

On Monday morning in New York, government representatives unsealed four indictments charging 27 people with offenses relating to the systemic doping of racehorses. The bold names in the indictment were trainer Jorge Navarro, who has won seven straight training titles at New Jersey’s Monmouth Park. And Jason Servis, whose late career ascendance peaked with a horse named Maximum Security, who was disqualified after crossing the finish line first in last year’s Kentucky Derby, later won the Eclipse Award as best three-year-old, and in February won the inaugural Saudi Cup, which carried a first-place purse of $10 million. (Generally trainers get 10 percent of purses.)

Inside the sport of racing, the unmasking of Navarro and Servis doesn’t qualify, strictly speaking, as a light-bulb moment. Each had developed a reputation inside the sport for taking other trainers’ horses and making them instantly, often dramatically, better. Trainers who do this in racing get a reputation. Sometimes they get caught, often they do not. Last winter Servis ran Maximum Security in a $16,000 claiming race at Gulfstream and less than five months later he was the best horse in the Derby, only to be justifiably disqualified for interfering with another horse in the homestretch. It was the first on-track DQ in the 145-year history of the Derby.

This is a magnification of how Servis earned his reputation. Some thought that with Maximum Security, Servis had cheated too well, like the marathon runner who cuts the course in search of a personal best and accidentally wins the race. Among the 59 trainers whose horses won more than $3 million in 2019, Servis (29 percent) and Navarro (28 percent) had the highest winning percentages – Higher than Eclipse winner Chad Brown (27 percent), higher than two-time Triple Crown winner Bob Baffert (24 percent), higher than high-volume veteran Steve Asmussen (20 percent). But Servis and Navarro had escaped the posse until this week.

Their indictments – they are innocent until found or plead otherwise – offer racing a respite from unrelenting bad news (although: keep reading below) to proclaim justice served. Enjoy that. But there is an underbelly that’s more disturbing. Like Armstrong, like Jones, like Sosa and McGwire (and all the others), Navarro and Servis were part of a system and part of a team. There were assistant trainers, veterinarians and medicine men (racing versions of BALCO’s Victor Conte) who allegedly peddled SGF-1000, a banned performance-enhancer. It would be naïve to presume that Navarro and Servis are the only trainers who were using SGF-1000, which their team said was not detectable in drug tests, or similar substances in some type of similar arrangement. (Also, the government’s investigation is ongoing.)

In this way, the good news of Navarro’s and Servis’s indictments becomes bad news because the problem is likely not just two bad actors. Cheating rarely works that way.

Coincidentally, one day after the federal indictments in New York, the California Horse Racing Board released its long-awaited report on the spate of fatalities that occurred at Santa Anita from late December to late March of last year. The report runs 77 pages and while it predictably does not find a single reason for the deaths that brought heavy pressure on the sport (and Santa Anita specifically), it is full of disappointing details.

Among them: 21 of the 23 horses who died in the studied time period (there were seven more equine fatalities between March 31 and the close of the Santa Anita spring meet in mid-June) had “pre-existing pathology” at the site of their fatal injuries. Eleven horses had received joint corticosteroid injections within 60 days of their fatal injury. Two had received injections within 14 days of their breakdown. The red flag here, obviously, is that horse welfare may have been secondary to horse participation. The CHRB also found that trainers’ record-keeping on horse health was generally lacking.

Additionally, several trainers told the CHRB that they felt pressure to enter their horses in races, an oft-cited anecdotal complaint that accompanied the surge in breakdowns. It was widely known and reported that Santa Anita was trying to increase daily revenue by creating larger race fields, which leads to more fervent betting. Thirty-nine percent of fatalities occurred on surfaces affected by wet weather. Last year’s unusually rainy winter was often blamed, in total, for the deaths. Trainers previously suggested to me that the track had been compromised by rain, and those compromised conditions persisted even on clear days. None of it is clear-cut, all of it is vaguely multifactorial. No surprise there.

The CHRB listed 48 recommendations, based on its study, including better monitoring of track conditions, more stringent requirements before allowing horses to enter races, better and more consistent veterinary record-keeping and, as ever, a study of the relationship between “crop use” (whipping) “and musculoskeletal injury.” That was No. 48. It is an ambitious list. Everything pertaining to the salvation of racing is ambitious.

Yet it is also quite simple.

There is commonality that runs through both the government’s indictment of Navarro and Servis, the CHRB’s lengthy report, and virtually every controversial crossroads that racing has reached in the last decade (and in truth, much further back than that). That commonality is this: Treatment of the horse as a commodity. It is the most vexing paradox in racing that the horse is both a living creature who did not choose this life and the ledger entry on which the entire, sprawling industry relies for survival. The deeper this paradox is explored, the more unresolvable it looks.

Jason Servis allegedly injected Maximum Security with a banned and potentially dangerous substance to move him up a few lengths and make some money. It’s unlikely he expected to make nearly $12 million, but here we are. Jorge Navarro said in an intercepted phone call that he injected a very good horse named X Y Jet more than 50 times. He did this to make money. X Y Jet died suddenly at Gulfstream Park this winter. At Santa Anita, high-end trainers like Baffert and Richard Mandella watched from their barns last winter as their more desperate colleagues sent horses out for training on a potentially dangerous surface because they did not have luxury of waiting for better conditions.

Racing is a massive industry across disparate jurisdictions that makes a financial impact on thousands, from the low-paid hotwalkers and grooms who care for horses every day to the wealthy Monopoly figurines who throw down millions to purchase a promising yearling on the longshot possibility that he will produce a champion. This entire economic system rests on the ability of horses to run fast and, failing that, to run often. Horses write the checks that keep the industry alive. Without horses, obviously but importantly, there is no sport. The sport has shown that illegal – and undetectable, like SGF-1000 – drugs can keep horses running and often running fast. Stopping this practice will prove challenging: Ask cycling or distance running. Chemists are often one step ahead of testers.

Increasingly, as racing has deservedly come under fire in recent years, the sport has defended itself with assertions that people who work in the sport love horses. And it’s true. People inside the sport of racing give their lives to their animals. Many of those who cheat surely love horses, too, but desperation and greed can be more powerful forces than affection. Life is complicated that way. More to the point, proclamations of love or weepy videos of trainers stroking a horse’s mane, while emotionally moving, do not comprise a plan for saving the sport.

Fundamental change is required. For a long time, dead horses were written off as part of the cost of doing business. Societal shifts have rendered that thinking largely unacceptable. And regardless of reforms, there will always be dead horses, a towering conundrum. There has been movement. Congress has conducted hearings on the Horse Racing Integrity Act and the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition has been formed, bring together some of the most powerful bodies in the sport. But it won’t be enough to plod forward with meetings and press releases, however well-intentioned. The sport desperately needs a centralized governing body. It needs fewer drugs and better detection. It needs to protect the athletes. Full stop. (Racing refuses to embrace the one solution that would dramatically reduce horse deaths: Synthetic tracks. Reasons are given: Too expensive, too difficult to handicap, breeders like dirt sires. Fine. Is no racing at all better than disruptive change?)

An image sticks with me. Racing almost escaped last November’s Breeders Cup without incident. But in the last race of the event, late on a Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita, Mongolian Groom broke down in the homestretch of the Classic, and was euthanized. I watched the race from the winner’s circle and then walked up the track to where Mongolian Groom stood, on three legs, alongside the inner rail. A small screen was erected, and behind it, veterinarians and support personnel quietly attended to Mongolian Groom.

In the days that followed the race, multiple veterinarians would look at training videos of Mongolian Groom and conclude that he probably should not have been allowed to race, and that his left hind leg seemed to be suffering from what could be called a pre-existing pathology. But somebody needed him to run and, in any case, this information was unhelpful to Mongolian Groom, because he was already dead.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.