The ‘Juice Man’ and the Drug Scandal That Rocked Horse Racing
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Stuart Janney III stood in his box seat lounge high above the grandstands at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. It was the middle of 2015’s fall season, and three of his horses were running that day.
Janney is a member of horse racing’s patrician elite: His family started one of the sport’s most fabled breeding farms, Wheatley Stable in Kentucky, which produced Seabiscuit, the Depression-era champion. He’s also chairman of Bessemer Trust Co., which started as a family investment fund and has grown into a wealth management company for 2,500 families, with $140 billion in assets.
Recently he’d been elected chairman of the Jockey Club, the registry for thoroughbreds that’s based in Midtown Manhattan. He saw it as his mission to protect the integrity of the sport, which was in decline.
Since 2000, 39 tracks across the U.S. had closed, and the number of foals born annually had plummeted from 40,000 to half that. Belmont’s days of hosting railroad tycoons such as Henry Phipps Jr. (Janney’s great-grandfather) and celebrities like Jackie Kennedy to huge crowds were long gone. Now the stands were mostly empty.
There were many reasons for the sport’s troubles, including the perception that it wasn’t safe for horses. Gruesome, high-profile breakdowns had drawn the ire of animal welfare activists who wanted a national ban. Eight Belles had to be euthanized on the track at the 2008 Kentucky Derby after finishing second and then breaking both front ankles; two years earlier, Barbaro fractured his right hind leg while running the Preakness, eventually leading to his being euthanized.
The Jockey Club had pushed for reforms to address trackside deaths, but Janney was convinced that die-hards were staying away for another reason: the sport’s inability to curb doping. “People I trusted were becoming increasingly suspect of the results,” Janney says. Trainers told him they were seeing horses become winners overnight. “Suddenly you’d have a horse that never got tired,” he says. “As the others slowed down, they never did.”
It’s not that the idea of doping shocked him. After all, it’s been part of the sport since its infancy. Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner, was given so many stimulants that he had difficulty performing as a sire. In the 1930s, when horse racing was the No. 1 sport in the U.S., horses ran on cocaine and heroin; later it was amphetamines.
But doping now seemed so brazen and pervasive that the fastest horses were as suspicious as the best home run hitters had been in the late 1990s. “I came away thinking that I couldn’t believe in the integrity of the results,” Janney says. Watching from his seats that afternoon, “there were four or five big races, and I couldn’t prove it, but I just felt like they had all been won by cheaters,” he says.
The next week, Janney called Jim Gagliano, the Jockey Club’s president, and told him something had to be done. “I wanted to catch the cheats,” Janney says. “I’m not talking about people doing little things here and there. I’m talking about the big fish, the people impacting our game.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d tried to do something. Over the years the Jockey Club had recruited whistleblowers through a tip line and hired private detectives to cultivate sources at tracks. But none of it worked.
Doping violations are almost always appealed, a process that can take months or years. Repeat offenders usually get slapped with a fine of a few thousand dollars and a warning. The horse that won the Kentucky Derby in May, Medina Spirit, was disqualified when he failed a drug test—and then he failed a second one. The trainer, Bob Baffert, arguably the greatest in the sport’s history, has trained horses that collectively failed 30 tests—including Justify, who won the Triple Crown in 2018—and, for years, faced no real consequences. (After Medina Spirit’s first positive test, Baffert blamed “cancel culture” then later said an ointment used to treat the horse for a rash contained a banned substance.)
As in other sports, catching dopers is difficult because “pharmaceuticals run ahead of the test labs,” says Mike Farrell, who’s covered horse racing since the 1970s for publications including the Daily Racing Form. “If you send a blood sample to a lab, you have to tell the lab what to look for. If they’re looking for a stimulant, they can find it, but if [the sample] has some chemical compound the lab can’t test for, it’s not going to show up.”
Janney needed to go in a different direction. He reached out to Travis Tygart, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. A few years earlier, when the agency was probing whether Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong had used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), the Jockey Club had invited Tygart to speak at its annual roundtable to learn from the inquiry.
Now Janney wanted a recommendation for a more aggressive approach. Tygart suggested 5 Stones Intelligence in Miami, which the agency had hired in its Armstrong probe. Made up of former agents from the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, 5 Stones had played a central role in exposing state-sponsored doping of Russian athletes. Many of the company’s employees had worked as spies for the U.S. government, conducting surveillance on terrorists and drug cartels. It would start at the beginning of the supply chain, figuring out who was making drugs and how they were finding their way to trainers. Their investigation would end with the biggest bust in the sport’s history, a multimillion-dollar fraud, details of which Bloomberg Businessweek has learned from reviewing court documents and talking with the trainers, horse and track owners, investigators, and others who pieced it together.
Jorge Navarro sat at the bar at Monmouth Park, a track in Oceanport, N.J., with an owner he trained horses for named Randall Gindi. It was August 2017, and Navarro had been the winningest trainer at Monmouth for five years.
A stout, Hulk-like figure, Navarro was born and raised in Panama before moving with his family to Detroit when he was 13. He’d started out grooming horses for his stepfather, trainer Julian Canet, at second-tier tracks such as Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens, Fla.
When Navarro arrived at Monmouth, he wasn’t one of the 100 highest-earning trainers in the U.S., but he climbed the ranks. In 2016 he smashed a season record for wins at the track that had stood since 1975 and saddled three horses in the Breeders’ Cup, the sport’s world championship, which was held that year at Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, Calif. He finished 2016 earning $4.1 million, which put him 29th nationally. His rise was so quick that it aroused suspicions he was juicing his horses.
Navarro was winning about a third of his races, which is almost impossible without cheating, says Patrick Cummings, executive director of the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, a think tank and industry advocacy group in Lexington, Ky. “In baseball, if you hit .300, you’re in the Hall of Fame,” he says. “In horse racing, no one hits .300.” The best trainers win closer to 20% of their races.
At the bar, Navarro and Gindi were watching a live feed from Gulfstream Park, near Miami, where Navarro stabled many of the 75 horses he trained. His brother Marcial, also a trainer, had a horse in a race, and as it entered the homestretch and won, Gindi pumped his fists.
“Adios, amigos!” he said, as a patron filmed on his phone. “The Juice Man!” he shouted, referring to a nickname that Navarro’s detractors had given him.
“We f--- everyone!” Navarro said with a sly grin.
The clip went viral on horse racing blogs, and the New Jersey Racing Commission fined Navarro $5,000 for “conduct detrimental to racing.” He and Gindi explained that they knew they were being filmed and were just being sarcastic, trolling a rival owner who’d called them cheaters. “Everyone wants to pick on Navarro when I win a race,” Navarro told Ray Paulick, publisher of the Paulick Report, a horse racing news site. “They call me ‘the Juice Man,’ even when my kids are around. My son is 10, my daughter is 7. How many fingers do you have to count the number of times I hear that stuff?”
Not only was Navarro winning a lot, but he was doing so with cheap, older horses that he said he rehabilitated. “Maybe when they were 3 years old, they had some ability—they had what we call in racing ‘class,’ speed and all that,” Paulick says. Navarro told him, he says, that he could “find a way to get those horses back to what they had earlier in their career.”
Navarro’s barn at Monmouth sat next to that of another trainer who was also winning at a suspicious rate, Jason Servis. The son of a jockey, Servis had grown up in a trailer park in Charles Town, W.Va., and started racing at an unsanctioned track in 1973, when he was 16. He became a jockey valet, which made him responsible for saddles, boots, and riding silks. For years he’d hung around Monmouth, parking cars and saddling horses, says a trainer who raced with Servis and Navarro and spoke anonymously for fear of retribution.
Servis’s big break came in 2001, when Dennis Drazin, chairman and CEO of the company that operates Monmouth, asked him if he’d train a couple of horses for him. Servis had gained a reputation as a good exercise rider. It took another 11 years, but in 2012 Servis cracked the top 100, earning $2.4 million as the No. 73 trainer in the U.S.
“He had an odd way of training,” says the trainer who raced with Servis and Navarro. “Jason’s horses would never even work out, and then they would show up and run a hole in the wind. Everyone was like, ‘How are you doing that?’ ”
Once Navarro and Servis started dominating at Monmouth, trainers who normally raced there took their horses to tracks in Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania. The fields got smaller in races that Navarro and Servis entered, and bettors stayed away, knowing that the horses would be “overbet” and yield small returns.
“It was embarrassing,” says John Pricci, a handicapper and analyst who watched many of Navarro’s and Servis’s races. “People would come up to me and say, ‘What’s going on?’ And I’d tell them, ‘Why bother asking me? Do you believe these are miracle workers? Or do you think something else is going on?’”
At tracks across the U.S., owners and trainers told similar stories, leading investigators to believe the phenomenon was not simply a local problem. That meant there were major domestic, and perhaps international, suppliers of PEDs.
In 2014, while investigating USA Cycling, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency had received a tip that a lab in South Florida was providing the PED Epogen to cyclists. The inquiry had gone cold, but as 5 Stones probed the dark web to determine where horse trainers were getting drugs, the same lab resurfaced, says a source close to the investigation who declined to be named sharing details.
When 5 Stones started building a network of informants, it included an owner-breeder who’d won the Kentucky Derby but now felt that cheaters were overrunning the sport. He and other informants agreed to tell 5 Stones which trainers were doping and where they were getting the drugs. But to break open the case, 5 Stones would need to obtain the drugs and have a lab test them for banned substances.
The investigators found an ally at the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, N.J. A second-generation New York City developer and managing partner of the company that operates the track, Jeff Gural had long been obsessed with catching dopers. He’d even hired Brice Cote, a former detective from the state police, to run security. When Gural heard that Janney and the Jockey Club had hired 5 Stones, he helped cover the fees, and Cote worked with 5 Stones to determine targets at the Meadowlands. This led to the discovery of bottles of pills and vials of liquid, says the owner-breeder, who asked for anonymity to discuss the case.
By 2017 the investigation had identified a network of trainers and vets suspected of distributing and administering PEDs in the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates, which has pumped billions of dollars into the sport since the mid-’90s and now hosts some of the world’s richest races. 5 Stones turned over its findings to the FBI—which began its own inquiry—and introduced the bureau to a man it said was supplying trainers with PEDs named Scott Robinson. (Ironically, 5 Stones knew Robinson because he’d paid $30,000 for the company’s services in an unrelated matter involving a trainer who, he says, owed him money.)
Robinson ran several websites, including HorsePreRace.com and HorseGold.com, that sold supplements. Some, such as “liquid Viagra,” were marketed as a way to increase stamina, and others, like “red acid,” were supposed to help horses run through pain. In the spring of 2019, Robinson met with FBI agents at an Embassy Suites in New Jersey.
“They said, ‘We’re doing some work at the Meadowlands. Maybe you can help us,’ ” Robinson says. “They told me they were looking into racehorse doping, and they showed me a bunch of pictures of people. And I was like, ‘I don’t even know who these people are.’ ”
Robinson met with FBI agents for a third time on Sept. 30, 2019. (The FBI declined to comment for this story.) They spoke for several hours, and then the agents walked Robinson down the hall to another room, he says, where DEA agents were waiting. They put him in the back seat of an SUV and drove to the warehouse where Robinson kept his products. “They searched my whole warehouse,” he says. “They took all my computers. They took about everything they could.”
By this time, Navarro and Servis were no longer at the fringes of the sport’s upper echelon. At the end of 2019, Navarro finished 16th nationally, with $6.8 million in winnings; Servis was 8th, with $11 million. One of his horses, Maximum Security, had finished the Kentucky Derby in first place before a controversial disqualification for interfering with another horse.
The year had started off with a milestone. Navarro won his 1,000th race on Jan. 26 with a 5‑year-old gelding named Aztec Sense. It was the horse’s eighth straight win. But after the race, a vet told him there was a problem with the horse’s front left ankle. “It came at a bad time,” Navarro told the Paulick Report, when asked about his big win. “The horses always come first.”
It was the right thing to say; Navarro no longer joked about being the Juice Man. Now that he was a top trainer, humility and contrition were important. But by this point, FBI agents had tapped his and Servis’s phones and were listening in on a web of vets and assistant trainers whom they saw as possible co-conspirators.
“You know how many f---ing horses he f---ing killed and broke down that I made disappear?” a trainer named Nick Surick said of Navarro on a wiretap a few weeks after Aztec Sense’s race. “You know how much trouble he could get in if they found out [about] the six horses we killed?” he asked. (Surick’s attorney didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
Eight days later, in another intercepted call, Navarro told an assistant trainer he needed “joint blockers,” which mask a horse’s ability to feel discomfort. Navarro ordered the drugs from the South Florida lab and then told the courier to impersonate the horse’s owner to bypass nosy race officials at Gulfstream.
According to court documents later filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, Navarro and Servis by this point were co-ringleaders in a doping conspiracy, running surveillance for each other and sharing trade secrets. In an intercepted text, Servis warned Navarro that a race official at Gulfstream was looking for evidence of PEDs. Later that day, Navarro called one of his assistants to say they’d almost been busted: “He would’ve caught our asses f---ing pumping and pumping and fuming every f---ing horse that runs today.” (“Pumping” and “fuming” are references to a practice known as “milkshaking,” which is when a hose or tube is forced down a horse’s throat so it can ingest a cocktail of legal and sometimes illegal substances that battle fatigue.)
In one call, Servis recommended a new drug called SGF-1000, an extract from sheep placenta that’s purported to have regenerative properties. “I’ve been using it on everything almost,” he said. Navarro said he had 12 horses on the drug before cutting the call short: “We’ll sit down and talk about this s---. I don’t want to talk about this s--- on the phone.”
The pressure on Navarro and Servis ratcheted up as 2019 wore on. They now had access to well-pedigreed horses typically reserved for celebrity trainers such as Baffert. The margin for error diminished. They felt as if they had to win or owners would find someone else, says the trainer who knew the men from Monmouth.
Navarro longed for simpler times. “He never intended to get that big, training 75, 80 horses,” the trainer says. The stress was getting to Servis, too. “Man, I don’t want to do this anymore,” the trainer says Servis told him. “I can’t wait for my assistants to take over. I tell them every day, ‘Please take over, I don’t want to train anymore.’ ”
Two weeks after that conversation, on Feb. 29, 2020, Servis won the world’s richest race, the $20 million Saudi Cup, in Riyadh.
On the morning of March 9, Janney was in his Midtown office when the texts started coming in. The raids were under way.
Janney says he’d sensed that something big was coming. He’d had regular contact with investigators at 5 Stones, who’d been telling him to keep quiet but assured him that arrests were imminent.
FBI agents showed up at the Palm Meadows Thoroughbred Training Center in Boynton Beach, Fla., and Gulfstream, and raided Navarro’s and Servis’s barns. At the same time, agents descended on Robinson’s Florida home, along with the houses, offices, and barns of dozens of others across the country.
Within hours, federal prosecutors and the FBI announced charges against 27 people, with two more names added later. The indictments revealed elaborate conspiracy allegations in which chemists operating out of clandestine labs supplied veterinarians and trainers with PEDs bearing names such as “snake venom,” to deaden pain; “bronk” (an abbreviation for bronchodilator), to make breathing easier; and “monkey,” to aid in endurance.
Navarro and Servis were the most high-profile indictments. The Southern District, which declined to comment for this story, charged them with “conspiracy to manufacture, distribute, and administer adulterated or misbranded drugs.” Servis was also charged with mail and wire fraud conspiracy. They’ve pleaded not guilty and are free on bond awaiting a trial date. Attorneys for both men declined repeated requests for comment and have made no public statements about their clients. Canet, Navarro’s stepfather, couldn’t be reached for comment. Servis’s brother, John, a trainer who won the Kentucky Derby in 2004 with Smarty Jones, declined to comment.
Robinson pleaded guilty to adulterating and misbranding PEDs, according to the indictments. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison, which he’ll start serving in September. He also must forfeit more than $3.8 million in sales from his websites. The indictment is so sprawling that clusters of trainers, suppliers, and others in states such as Delaware and Pennsylvania are named, too. It makes no connection between Robinson and Navarro and Servis, who are alleged to have gotten their drugs from the South Florida lab and other suppliers. The South Florida lab isn’t named in the indictment, but Seth Fishman, who ran it, is. He’s charged with misbranding, adulterating, and manufacturing PEDs. He pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer declined to comment.
From January 2018 to February 2020, according to the indictments, Navarro entered horses in 1,480 races, and Servis entered almost 1,100; during that time, prosecutors say, both hid the use of PEDs from regulatory agencies, racing officials, and the public, defrauding bettors. Navarro won $13.5 million in purse money in that span, and Servis won $18.5 million (the bulk of which went to owners).
Drazin, the Monmouth operator, said in a statement, “I have always advocated that cheating cannot be tolerated, and I would never tolerate illegal conduct.” The Stronach Group, which owns Gulfstream, said, “The warrants issued were specific only to the barns and stalls that were occupied by the individuals charged. … The Stronach Group is not included in the charges. The Stronach Group is committed to achieving the highest level of horse care.” The Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia said it was “conducting its own investigation in respect of the allegations and until that investigation is concluded, JCSA will withhold payment of prize money.”
In September, Janney will return to Belmont for the fall season. He’s encouraged by where the sport is headed. Six months after the indictments, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act passed Congress. When the law takes effect next year, horse racing will fall under the authority of a nine-person regulatory body, which plans to contract with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to try to keep horse racing clean.
Officials also may be cracking down on the sport’s top ambassadors. Baffert, whose horse was disqualified from the Kentucky Derby, was barred for an undisclosed period from racing at New York Racing Association tracks—Belmont, Saratoga Race Course upstate, and Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. Churchill Downs, the track where the Derby is run, suspended him from racing in the event in 2022 and 2023. Baffert wasn’t charged in the Southern District’s case. He’s sued the association, saying its decision will put him out of business in New York, and he’s sued the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission for a temporary injunction to allow for more testing of Medina Spirit. In a 2020 Washington Post op-ed, he wrote, “Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our equine and human athletes.”
“We’ve made a lot of progress, but we’re not done yet,” Janney says. “There are always going to be people who make a calculation that they can do better by cheating, but hopefully now they’re going to look at the risk in a different way.”
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