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Horse racing ensnared in 'widespread' doping scheme

Dan Wetzel
Columnist
Jason Servis, trainer of Maximum Security, is among those indicted for illegally drugging horses. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

A grand jury in the Southern District of New York indicted 27 individuals on Monday in what federal prosecutors are calling a “widespread scheme to illegally dope racehorses.”

The most prominent name in the indictment is Jason Servis, a famed trainer whose stable includes Maximum Security, who crossed the finish line first at the 2019 Kentucky Derby but was disqualified for obstruction. 

It brings into question whether Maximum Security had been given performance-enhancing drugs for that race.

“Jason Servis was a racehorse trainer who orchestrated a widespread scheme of covertly obtaining and administering adulterated and misbranded PEDs … to virtually all of the racehorses under his control,” the indictment reads. “From 2018 to February 2020, Servis entered horses in approximately 1,082 races.”

Maximum Security didn’t officially win the Derby when it was determined he had slowed the momentum of the horse Country House. However, Maximum Security went on to capture the Saudi Cup last month in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which commanded a $10 million purse.

There was no immediate information on how Servis and the others plan to plead.

It stands to reason that few in the public actually ever believed horse racing was on the up and up — the sport’s longstanding ties to gambling and organized crime are well known. Having a tip on a horse is a cliched movie plot at this point. 

Yet for a sport that is desperate to maintain, if not gain, a foothold in current society, this is a damning blow. Horse racing was once one of the most popular pastimes in America, but with the proliferation of other forms of gambling — lotteries, casinos and now legalized sports wagering — it’s fallen to the wayside.

Its one cornerstone, however, is the annual Triple Crown for the best 3-year-olds in the world. The Kentucky Derby, which attracts 100,000-plus fans, often decked out in regal outfits, is the most popular of the events.

For the Derby to be tainted is about the last thing the sport needed. Having fans both in Louisville and at watch parties across the country and the world paying attention, wagering and talking the sport up is critical.

In this case, that disqualification decision, which was controversial at the time, spared the Derby from significant embarrassment.

It goes beyond just the high-profile race and a high-profile trainer. 

The victims of the scheme are not merely rival trainers, fans or gamblers. It is also the animals. The scheme involved drugging horses in “an effort to increase their performance beyond their natural abilities” in races and at tracks across the country, according to Bill Sweeney of the FBI. 

Among the indicted include trainers, veterinarians and drug distributors. The animals often suffered, including distress, injuries and even death.

“It amounted to nothing short of abuse,” Sweeney said, noting that the humans meanwhile “lined their pockets” while manipulating the sport.

For horse racing, which certainly didn’t need any more bad publicity or reason for the public to turn away from it, this wasn’t a good day.

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