In what will go down as the most surreal week in sports since 9/11, racing got a double spoonful of distasteful medicine.
As the sports world – and the real world – come to grips with the spreading coronavirus, the horse world must also sort out the impact of the criminal bombshell that dropped Monday.
Rival trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro, supposedly working together like few of us ever suspected, are now the faces of a bona fide scandal. Their names jumped off the 84 pages of the four indictments that came out of a federal prosecutor’s office just steps from the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge.
The supporting cast for Servis and Navarro includes 25 other trainers and veterinarians and ne’er-do-well drug suppliers, all suspected of turning prized animals like 2019 champion 3-year-old Maximum Security into pincushions overdosed with relabeled, illegal narcotics. Branded now as bandits, their very footsteps during the last two or three years were traced with confiscated drug vials, countless FBI wiretaps and a trail that covers not only five U.S. states but also the Middle East.
Social media being what they are, cynicism overflowed after Servis and Navarro were busted in a pre-dawn, FBI raid Monday on barns in Florida and New York. The “I told you sos” were all over Twitter like a weekend red-boarder at sundown on a Saturday.
“We all knew,” one horseplayer wrote. “Frankly, I have no idea why it took horse racing so long to get the goods on Navarro and Jason Servis and the vets who aided and abetted these perpetual cheaters.”
“Worst open secret in sports that these two were drugging horses,” another wrote.
A third said, “Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro deserve a lifetime ban as well as their vets and cohorts.”
And they went on and on. Hell hath no fury like a horseplayer scorned. Yet wise guys who have been on to Servis and Navarro – at least in years of public suspicion – have grumblingly cooked the trainers’ too-good-to-be-true success rate into their handicapping of races.
Now that Maximum Security has been shipped off to Bob Baffert and five-time graded-stakes winner Firenze Fire to Kelly Breen and the rest of Servis’s stable to other scattered trainers, bettors must figure out what happens now that “virtually all of the racehorses under his control,” as claimed by the feds, are weaned from a program of “adulterated and misbranded PEDs.”
When – or if – Maximum Security ever gets back on the track, will he be the same horse that had the wherewithal to finish first before being disqualified in last year’s Kentucky Derby? Will he still have the goods to back up his now-asterisked, best-in-the-world claims after winning two weeks ago in the $20 million Saudi Cup?
It is a lot like what bettors face the next 1½ years as horses competing in stakes at major tracks are taken off Lasix. The Pegasus World Cup provided a first example, but the sample was not nearly big enough to spot any trends.
The bigger question now, though, is whether the “Servis-Navarro 27” are just the beginning. Could this be the first in a series of barn raids the way that college basketball programs under federal investigation mushroomed from eight schools 2½ years ago to 14 more within six months? It is probably no coincidence that the New York federal prosecutor who has been going after the basketball cheats is the same one who made Monday’s big splash on horse racing.
This federal investigation “actually started as a different case on a different topic altogether,” said Bill Sweeney, the FBI’s assistant director in charge in New York. “We had one agent in particular that was actually an expert in this industry from a prior life. He was part of the team, and they did great work.”
Doesn’t this beg the question what more do they have?
While it may or may not mean the indictment of more trainers, the consensus from all corners of racing is clear. The sport has been unable and/or unwilling to clean up its own act, so the federal government felt obliged to step in.
As squeaky-clean trainer Graham Motion put it, again on Twitter, “A sad day for racing but a long time coming. A good day for those who try to play by the rules. We will all be better for it.”
As horse lovers and horseplayers, we certainly hope so.
Rainy weather greets Derby preps
Wet weather is forecast at Hot Springs, Ark., and in the Cincinnati area for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby points preps – the $1 million Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park and the $250,000 Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks (yes, Steaks) at Turfway Park.
A virtual win-and-you’re-in for the Derby, the 8½-furlong Rebel on Saturday at 6:23 p.m. EDT is deeper in both quality and wet-track experience than the Jeff Ruby. But morning-line favorite Nadal (5-2), Bob Baffert’s 2-for-2 Grade 2 winner from California, is not one of them. He will be challenged by the likes of Basin (3-1) and Silver Prospector (7-2), both trained by Steve Asmussen, and No Parole (8-1). All three have won in the mud or slop.
Basin has not raced since he won the Grade 1 Hopeful sprint by 6½ lengths in the Saratoga slop last summer. Southwest Stakes winner Silver Prospector finished first in last autumn’s Kentucky Jockey Club on a sloppy main track at Churchill Downs. Trained by Tom Amoss, Louisiana-bred stakes winner No Parole is 3-for-3 with a combined winning margin of 33½ lengths, including an allowance victory by 13 two months ago at the Fair Grounds.
Three Technique (7-2) was a beaten favorite in a sodden Smarty Jones Stakes. American Theorem (6-1) was sired by Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, the 2015 Rebel winner on – yes – a sloppy track.
No Parole could very well get out on the early lead. So the wetter it is the more I like him, especially at the 8-1 price, over Basin and Silver Prospector. As for Nadal, color me stubborn, but I do not like that he is losing his cheater blinkers for this race.
Black-type stakes winners Invader (3-1) and Field Pass (7-2), the shortest-priced horses on the morning line, drew widest of the 12 horses in the 1⅛-mile Jeff Ruby. The race is scheduled for Saturday at 6:42 p.m. EDT on Turfway’s all-weather Polytrack, where Invader is 2-for-2 after going 0-for-4 on turf for trainer Wesley Ward. Field Pass closed from off the pace to win the Dania Beach turf stakes early last month at Gulfstream Park. Myamanoi (4-1) was fourth in that mile race, where his late close suggested that he will be better at this longer distance.
This race that does not award as many points as the Rebel also lacks obvious early speed; Invader may well set the pace. My lean then will be away from closers. I like Invader, but I do not like his short price. So I will look to the twice-claimed Victory Boulevard (30-1) to hit the board as he carries a three-race winning streak in this class jump for trainer Mike Maker.
In spite of the coronavirus scare, both the Rebel and Jeff Ruby cards were still going forward with fans locked out. The Stronach Group and the New York Racing Association also announced that races at Santa Anita, Golden Gate Fields and Aqueduct will be held indefinitely without fans.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning – more frequently for big races – at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Long-range challenges for horse racing and goals for an international jockey are up for discussion on the current RFRP. National Thoroughbred Racing Association CEO Alex Waldrop talks about the issues facing the sport. Italian jockey Umberto Rispoli discusses his permanent move to Santa Anita. Saturday’s Kentucky Derby points preps – the Rebel and the Jeff Ruby – are previewed. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by Xpressbet. Monday’s RFRP on the federal indictments related to illegal racehorse doping is also still available.