JAVMA News logo

April 15, 2020

Veterinarians among those charged in widespread horse doping scheme

Unapproved drugs hidden from regulators, racetrack officials
Published on March 25, 2020

Federal prosecutors have arrested several veterinarians, trainers, and other horse racing professionals on charges relating to systematic, covert administration of illegal performance-enhancing drugs to racehorses in the U.S. and abroad, according to court documents released March 9.

Of the 27 defendants, 19 are charged in an indictment detailing conspiracies “to manufacture, distribute, and receive adulterated and misbranded PEDs and to secretly administer those PEDs to racehorses” in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio, Kentucky, and the United Arab Emirates, according to the press release from the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

“This is the most far-reaching prosecution of racehorse doping in the history of the Department of Justice,” said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman during a press conference. “The defendants who we charged today engaged in this conduct not for the love of the sport, and certainly not out of care for the horses, but for money to secure cash prizes by increasing a racehorse’s chances of winning races or to make money by manufacturing and selling illegal drugs. And it was the racehorses that paid the price for the defendants’ unbridled greed.”

Racehorses on the track
The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York has indicted 27 people for taking part in conspiracies “to manufacture, distribute, and receive adulterated and misbranded (performance-enhancing drugs) and to secretly administer those PEDs to racehorses” in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio, Kentucky, and the United Arab Emirates.

Four indictments

The charging documents state that in some instances the horses were given unapproved drugs “whose chemical composition is unknown” and that the drugs were administered by nonveterinarians in a manner that could injure or even kill the horses and masked the horses’ ability to feel pain, resulting in overexertion during races that potentially caused accidents, broken limbs, and death.

The investigation began in January 2017 and continued through this year, and it involved races across the country and in the UAE. FBI agents raided barns at Gulfstream Park West near Miami and the Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach, Florida, the day the charges were announced, according to The Washington Post.

Court documents indicate that Jorge Navarro, a horse trainer, is at the center of the alleged scheme. Federal prosecutors say he and others used PEDs designed to evade drug tests, hid the drugs from state regulators and racing officials, and shipped certain products designed to mask the presence of PEDs through a straw purchaser, among other things. From February 2018 to February 2020, he entered horses in nearly 1,500 races.

Drs. Erica Garcia and Seth Fishman, equine veterinarians in Florida, and Gregory Skelton, an equine veterinarian in Indiana, were charged as accomplices to Navarro; prosecutors allege the veterinarians either illegally manufactured the PEDs or illegally administered PEDs at Navarro’s direction. A number of other people were charged with helping Navarro obtain, ship, and administer the drugs.

Jason Servis, another high-profile trainer, operated a similar doping scheme for virtually all of the racehorses under his control, according to court documents. He entered horses in approximately 1,082 races in the past two years. In this case, Drs. Alexander Chan, an equine veterinarian and racing official with the New York Racing Association, and Kristian Rhein, a racetrack veterinarian in New York, are accused of obtaining and administering misbranded and adulterated PEDs, among other things.

The second indictment charges four people, including another equine veterinarian, Dr. Louis Grasso, with conspiring to violate the misbranding laws of the United States. The indictment states he “manufactured, sold, and distributed adulterated and misbranded PEDs for use on racehorses,” including snake venom as a pain-blocking substance.

Dr. Grasso has previously been convicted of selling human steroids. He also lost his New York State Racing and Wagering license for administering drugs too close to starting times, which means he cannot practice at racetracks within the state. Dr. Grasso practices in Orange County, New York.

The third indictment charges two individuals with misbranding and adulterations conspiracies. According to the press release, “The two defendants previously collaborated in running online marketplaces selling adulterated and misbranded PEDs for racehorses.”

The final indictment charges another two individuals with distribution of an adulterated and misbranded blood builder sourced illegally.

Racing and ethics

The drugs listed within the court documents include erythropoietin, which increases the red blood cell count of horses to stimulate endurance and improve race recovery; snake venom, which is used to deaden a horse’s nerves and block pain; SGF-1000, which is a customized PED that is intended to promote tissue repair and increase a horse’s stamina; analgesics such as a frozen pain shot, which contains pain-relieving substances; and red acid, a custom-made PED that is administered to mask injuries in racehorses, among other things.

Thirteen people were taken into federal custody March 9, according to the press release. Dr. Fishman was arrested this past October.

Dr. David Frisbie, president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, issued a statement in response to the announcement of federal charges.

“Today’s indictments of five AAEP-member veterinarians are concerning and disappointing to our association and the countless equine veterinarians who provide medical care to racehorses in an ethical manner,” he said. “The AAEP’s Professional Conduct and Ethics Committee has been informed about the federal charges, and our internal review process will soon begin to ensure a fair and thorough evaluation of the events. The AAEP’s authority, however, is limited only to membership status in the association. It is the ethical obligation of AAEP members and all veterinarians to adhere to the highest standards in order to protect the racehorse and the integrity of the sport.”

As previously reported by JAVMA News, a cluster of apparently unrelated horse racing deaths in 2019 led to increased calls for safety-related reforms and standardization in the industry, including the creation of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition and the introduction of the Horseracing Integrity Act (HR 1754) in the 116th Congress. The legislation would establish the Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority as an independent, private, nonprofit organization that would develop and administer a program for Thoroughbred, Standardbred, and Quarter Horse racing. The Federal Trade Commission would have oversight.

The Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, launched this past November, comprises six racetrack organizations: The Breeders’ Cup, Churchill Downs, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, Keeneland, the New York Racing Association, and The Stronach Group, which operates Gulfstream Park West and Palm Meadows Training Center. The TSC aims to make operational, medical, and organizational changes to the racing industry. It issued the following statement:

“There is no place in our sport for the activities described in the indictments filed by the Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney’s Office. Safety and integrity will always come first for the members of the Coalition, which is why restricting medication and improving testing is one of the main pillars in our reform platform.”

Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine assigned full-time to the California Horse Racing Board, said testing has always been rigorous in horse racing, but there has been an over-reliance on drug testing instead of surveillance.

“In my 13 years in this position as equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, the best anti-doping and regulatory compliance strategy I have seen is the implementation of video surveillance at Santa Anita racetrack,” he said. “We have all the regulations we need. It’s just very difficult to monitor everyone’s activity, and this is an example of a few bad actors spoiling the barrel.”