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Monmouth Park horse deaths connected to trainers charged in doping scheme
17th March, 09:13Firm was a 3-year-old gelding that entered trainer Jorge Navarro's barn on Jan. 12, 2019, after being claimed, or purchased, for $12,500 at Gulfstream Park in Florida.
Even though Firm didn't win a race over the next four months, Navarro continued to run him against increasing better competition, including a sixth-place finish against horses valued at $30,000 at Monmouth Park last May 25.
Then he went up in class again, facing $40,000 claimers at Monmouth Park last June 15. He ran the race of his life.
It was also the last race of his life.
Firm rallied from last to finish second, picking up a $5,000 check in the mile-and-1/16th test on the turf. But he collapsed after the race and died on the track, with the exact cause of death unknown, according to a state report on the incident.
State horse racing fatality records examined by the Asbury Park Press show Firm was among 12 horses trained by Navarro to die at Monmouth Park in racing or training accidents since Navarro, 44, first became a regular at the Oceanport track in 2012. That's more horse deaths than any other trainer at Monmouth Park, going back to 2010 (there were a total 237 horse deaths during that time).
The second highest total, with seven deaths, belongs to trainer Jason Servis, a 62-year-old Eatontown resident who appeared to win the Kentucky Derby last year only to have his horse, Maximum Security, disqualified for interference.
Both Navarro and Servis are key figures in the sweeping racehorse doping investigation that led to 27 indictments by the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York last week.
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The Monmouth Park horse deaths are not mentioned in the charging documents for the doping investigation.
Attorneys for Navarro and Servis said their clients will plead not guilty to the federal charges. Lawyers for other defendants named in this story declined comment. Servis faces up to five years in prison on a single charge of misbranding conspiracy - altering package labeling to hide performance-enhancing drugs from race officials - and Navarro faces two charges of the same crime.
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The details in the federal indictments cast a shadow on equine safety and racing integrity at the Oceanport racetrack over recent years.
Navarro and Servis, whose barns were side-by-side on Monmouth Park's backstretch each summer, are accused of using PEDs that were undetectable in post-race drug tests, with authorities alleging they worked hand-in-hand to procure PEDs based on FBI interceptions of phone calls and text messages included in the indictments.
Navarro's 68 wins were the most at Monmouth Park in 2019, while Servis won the most money, bankrolling $2.2 million. Between them, they pocketed $4.35 million, winning 30 percent of their races and hitting the board 66 percent of the time, according to the track's records.
The indictment alleges Servis gave a PED called SGF-1000 "to virtually all of the racehorses under his control." And that Navarro "provided PEDs to Servis at Servis' request."
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Dennis Drazin, the chairman and CEO of Darby Development LLC, which operates Monmouth Park, is the owner of some of the horse trained by Servis. Those horses include Sunny Ridge, who has bankrolled more than $1.4 million, including a win in the Grade 3 $150,000 Salvator Mile at Monmouth Park last May.
None of Drazin's horses are named in the alleged doping incidents.
"This indictment is particularly sad in that Jason Servis was my trainer," Drazin said in a statement. "During my 45 years as an attorney, chairman of the (New Jersey Racing Commission) and racetrack operator, I have always advocated that cheating cannot be tolerated and I would never tolerate illegal conduct. My horses are being moved to Pat McBurney."
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On June 5, 2019, six weeks before Servis won the $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park with Maximum Security, a wiretap picked up a phone conversation in which Servis and veterinarian Kristian Rhein, also indicted, discuss PEDs for Maximum Security. In the conversation, Rhein reassures Servis the horse would not test positive after receiving a shot of SGF-1000, saying: "They don't even have a test for it ... There's no test for it in America."
The exact number of dead horses tied to Navarro at Monmouth Park is now in question.
In an intercepted call from Feb. 1, 2019, Nicholas Surick, a trainer at Freehold Raceway and owner at Monmouth Park who was among those indicted, said to trainer Michael Tannuzzo, a long-time Navarro assistant who was also indicted: "You know how many (expletive) horses (Navarro) (expletive) killed and broke down that I made disappear ... You know how much trouble he could get in ... if they found out ... the six horses we killed?"
Contained within the indictment is an allegation that on May 15, 2019, Tannuzzo received a package of "blood builder" performance-enhancing drugs for Navarro in New Jersey.
According to the indictment, "Blood builders, when combined with intense physical exertion, thicken a horse's blood, thereby causing increased cardiac exertion and pressure, which can lead to cardiac issues or death."
Servis and Navarro are scheduled to appear before a federal court for arraignment and initial conference March 23.