Trainers, veterinarians indicted for giving racehorses performance-enhancing drugs
Charges have been filed against 27 individuals in the $100 billion global horse racing industry.
On March 10, New York State Gaming Commission suspended the licenses of 11 individuals, including trainers and equine veterinarians, due to their improper use of the compound SGF-1000 RMR and other performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in horses under their care.
This action came after federal prosecutors, headed by U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman (Southern District of New York [SDNY]), handed down indictments against Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro, among many others, for the obtainment, distribution and use of adulterated PEDs, specifically SGF-1000, as they attempted to improve the performance of racehorses over a period of several years.
The FBI and NYPD were also involved in the case, as were FDA and Customs and Border Protection agents in New York. In addition, the New York State Racing Commission may revoke the licenses of these individuals to work in the state, with fines up to $25,000 per violation.
According to the federal indictment, the charges “result from a widespread, corrupt scheme by racehorse trainers, veterinarians, distributors, and others to manufacture, distribute, and receive adulterated and misbranded PEDs and to secretly administer those PEDs to racehorses under scheme participants’ control.”
"By evading PED prohibitions and deceiving regulators and horse racing authorities, among others,” the indictment continues, “participants sought to improve race performance and obtain prize money from racetracks throughout the United States and other countries.”
A total of 27 people in several states were charged and could receive lengthy prison sentences if convicted. Among them, in addition to trainers Servis and Navarro, who pled not guilty to the charges on April 2, are assistant trainers, pharmacists, veterinarians and drug distributors. Prosecutors claim that Navarro administered some of the PEDs himself, as well as directing the veterinarians he worked with to do so. His indictment includes the use of tens of thousands of dollars, sourced by Miami veterinarian Seth Fishman, DVM, who also allegedly provided a blood builder to Navarro. Gregory Skelton, DVM, owner of Skelton Equine Sports Medicine in Carmel, Indiana, was indicted for selling joint blocks and analgesics.
Trainer Nicholas Surick allegedly supplied Navarro with various PEDs and adulterated drugs, including erythropoietin (Epogen) and “red acid,” an agent used to reduce joint inflammation. Kristian Rhein, DVM, and Alexander Chan, DVM, were also involved, the indictment notes, with the use of fake prescriptions and falsified veterinary bills. Also according to the indictment, Navarro’s PEDs of choice allegedly were “blood-building” drugs, including “monkey,” which boosts a horse’s red blood cell count to stimulate endurance and improve recovery. When combined with the intense physical exertion involved in horse racing, these drugs can overload a horse’s heart, which can lead to cardiac issues and/or death.
Others included in the indictment are Rick Dane Jr., DVM, Erica Garcia, DVM, and Louis Grasso, DVM, all of whom were found to be in violation for improperly administering various PEDs to racing horses between January 2018 and October 2019, as well as misbranding PEDs and shipping illegal drugs. Servis and Navarro were charged with using blood-doping agents to enhance “oxygenation of body tissues” to racehorses, a practice outlawed by racing rules.
One of the horses trained by John Servis is champion Maximum Security, although Servis and Navarro train numerous horses whose race outcomes could have been affected, including Navarro’s XY Jet, who died of an apparent heart attack in January possibly due to the use of the drugs.
On June 5, 2019, New Jersey regulators tested Maximum Security prior to the Pegasus Stakes. Dr. Rhein noted that SGF-1000 could not be detected via testing. Servis allegedly asked Dr. Rhein to alter the horse’s veterinary records to show that it had been given dexamethasone instead.
Another order was issued against Scott Mangini, in charge of websites where PEDs could be purchased. Another order was assigned to groom Conor Flynn, whose license to work was suspended for using and distributing PEDs.
In addition to the actions by New York state racing regulators, Keeneland (Lexington, KY) Race Course president and CEO Bill Thomason stated that “the administration of illegal medication and improper substances to our equine athletes is … simply unacceptable.” He also stated that the actions of the SDNY U.S. Attorney’s Office will help regulate Keeneland to ensure the health and safety of Kentucky racing horses. Servis, Navarro and several others had their licenses suspended from training, racing or being involved in racehorse sales in Kentucky.
If convicted, the conspirators could face hefty fines and long prison sentences.
What is SGF-1000?
According to the now-defunct website of Kentucky-based MediVet Equine—one of a handful of manufacturers of SGF-1000—the drug “works at the cellular level to promote rejuvenation and recovery from training, resulting in increased general health and wellness.”
The company also stated on its website that SGF-1000 “is an innovative formulation consisting of amino acids derived from ovine (sheep) placental extract. SGF-1000 is manufactured and puriﬁed through a patented low-temperature process that involves homogenization, fractionation and ultra-ﬁltration of the ovine placental extract suspended in a sterile liquid.”
As for safety and administration, MediVet Equine stated “SGF 1000 RMR is administered as an IV injection of 10 ml (one vial) every 28 days during training.”
SGF-1000 is a dangerous drug when given to racehorses. What MediVet Equine failed to divulge is that this and other PEDs promoted by trainers Servis, Navarro and the veterinarians they worked with pose a danger to the health and safety of racehorses. The use of SGF-1000 and the other doping agents used essentially amounted to abuse of racehorses, including concerns about over-exertion leading to an increased risk for physical injury, including leg fractures, cardiac issues and, in some cases, death
According to The Jockey Club, doping has long been a concern in horse racing, although it has been difficult to investigate or prosecute as regulations are distributed by more than 30 separate state regulatory and enforcement agencies. The individuals named in this indictment were involved at racetracks in New York, Kentucky, New Jersey and Florida, as well as in the United Arab Emirates.
“This is a tangled web!” Larry Bramlage, DVM, MS, DACVS, who practices at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, told dvm360. “We don’t know if some of these drugs do anything or not, and if they do how. This is an example of why we need a platform like the Horse Racing Integrity Act to rid the sport of this type of activity and the black eyes it puts on an industry where 99% of the people are trying to do the right thing and the 1% of the people don’t care about the industry or the horse.”
Ed Kane, PhD, is a researcher and consultant in animal nutrition. He is an author and editor on nutrition, physiology and veterinary medicine with a background in horses, pets and livestock. Dr. Kane is based in Seattle.