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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Whatever the result, we were gratified to see that the New York State Gaming Commission is taking a deeper dive into the past veterinary records of indicted trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis.

We support the position that hair-testing will be ordered before horses previously trained by them, or any other indicted individuals, can return to competition.

Hopefully, those results will be made transparent so that bettors can have some idea how long it takes for illicit drugs to clear a horse’s system or to what extent it affects on past performance lines.

Like people, horses are individuals and react differently to different stimuli. It wouldn’t strain credibility if the return to a drug-free existence took longer for some than it does others. And perhaps we can all learn something about how those cocktails work, too?

The New York Drug Testing and Research Program at SUNY-Morrisville is performing the majority of the hair testing with help UC-Davis, a highly respected laboratory. Parenthetically, I will be more at ease when New York’s drug-testing program returns to Cornell in the near future.

That done, information gathering and accountability must be assured to make any of this work. Trainers and veterinarians are required to maintain medication histories. In addition, owners should be required to be accountable as well.

Since owners pay veterinary bills separate apart “day money” it pays trainers, why shouldn’t these licensed individuals be held to the same standards? And for all, owning and tending to animals is a privilege, not a right.

Indeed, some owners are the thread that binds their horses to any number of trainers, many of whom are remarkably successful as their unnaturally high win percentages indicate. There should be accountability at every level of participation.

The hair-testing development could not be timelier with respect to two high-profile horses formerly trained by Servis. Kentucky Derby “winner” Maximum Security has been notably absent from the work-tab as new trainer Bob Baffert “gets to know him.” But recent news has been eerily quiet.

Performed by renown equine surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage, video imaging showed Maximum Security had subchondral bone bruising in all four legs, localized to lower cannon bones. This is typical wear and tear for a horse in long-term training, especially those competing at the highest levels.

Time is the best medicine, and it had better be. If he does return to the racetrack, ‘Max’ had better be prepared to go from five furlongs in 1:04 to five-eighths of a mile in :59. And his Hall of Fame handler will be extra cautious considering, well, everything.

Neither do we know the condition of multiple graded stakes winner Firenze Fire, how or if he’s able to progress under the care of trainer Kelly Breen. We have not seen his name on the work-tab, for good reason according to one HRI source. An old-schooler, Breen will give him all the time he needs.

In both cases, we fully expect these horsemen to do right by their horses. Given prevailing circumstances, the stakes could not be higher.


We cannot agree that the three-day suspension handed Irad Ortiz Jr. by the Santa Anita stewards for his ride in Saturday’s Grade 1 Charles Whittingham was fair, or even warranted. The disqualification? Arguably, yes. The suspension? No.

In an inquiry that came close to rivaling the time taken by the Churchill Downs stewards on the first Saturday in May last year, Ortiz was disqualified and placed third for bumping show finisher, Originaire, who he outfinished by a half-length. Rockemperor’s rally fell short of catching United by a nose.

Did Rockemperor veer in and bump with Originaire approaching midstretch, knocking him off stride? Yes. But was Umberto Rispoli prevented from doing his best aboard Originaire at any point in the stretch? Unequivocally, no.

The disqualification is justified because clearly there was bumping but no substantial evidence of race-riding, or purposeful interference by Ortiz who also made use of a right-handed whip. Rispoli never stopped riding and at no time was he forced to gather his mount.

It can be argued that Rispoli helped make his own trouble by allowing Originaire to come out as far as he did at headstretch. He put himself in harm’s way by coming out on a rival that was gaining on him with every stride.

The chart footnote gave an extremely sanitary account of what took place on the turf course, noting also that Originaire was “bumped again nearing the wire.” But that incident was on Rispoli, who had switched the crop to his left hand, his mount coming out and bumping Rockemperor’s hind end.

Sometimes racing is a contact sport and that was the case here. The decision to give Ortiz days was made without context in our view. Worse, the incident did not cost Originaire a placing, the losing margin between the two horses was sizable. The decision was unfair to Ortiz and bettors of the 5-6 exacta.

The stewards ruling said the suspension resulted from Ortiz’ “failure to maintain a straight course…” The fact that the same can be said of Rispoli approaching the finish line apparently was not considered.

We have written about race-riding often and our opinion has evolved to the point where I’m closer philosophically to “a foul is a foul is a foul” position. In this environment every effort must be made to safeguard animal and man, especially given Santa Anita history going back to last season.

A “letter of the law” interpretation was understandable, as was the demotion. But in this case, a bad thing happened and the loss of purse money seems punishment enough. But a dual Eclipse Award-winning rider didn’t do a bad thing here. His suspension is an example of official overreach.

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8 Responses

  1. When Scott Lake was winning at a high % both in NY and Delaware was he ever caught doing something not legit or he just was ahead of those tests, Lance Armstrong style? Did L.Armstrong ever mention doctor Michele Ferreri, o Ferrari, in his gig on ESPN?? (blood transfusions) Curious.

    1. Will harness racing, at least in its biggest tracks ever tighten up its ” drug testing” since the same leading trainers are holding on to the top rankings in $ and Wins and of course along with the same ” contract ” drivers not leaving much X the other catch drivers getting longshots in most races.

      1. Didn’t watch the Armstrong doc; busy completing ‘Bloodline” –no horses — and episode 4 of “Last Dance,” well worth the time.

        As far as I know, there were no sanctions re Scott Lake, his winning percentage just dropped precipitously.

        1. Strange drop! As if all of a sudden a winning trainer just loses ” His hands and Ability ” a la Carmine Abbatiello…..

      2. Just as Thoroughbred racing has its super trainers, so does harness racing who are regulated by ARCI guidelines, so there’s that. Will say this, their sport would be in a better place if all had to answer to Jeff Gural. Gural is harness’ answer to Frank Stronach; they have the best “long term” interests of their sport as their focus.

  2. John,
    Not only should the horses of Servis and Navarro be tested and looked at,but also other trainers who show strange up swings in performances.Racing should be proactive,not reactive. The FBI has set the bar high.Can racing keep up ?

    1. A, Agree re who should be tested, and I’m a big proponent of random testing of all trainers. If you’ve done nothing wrong, that should be no problem, yeah?

      Regrettably, industry not known for pro-action.

      I’ll settle for any bar at all. But in the bigger picture, still believe federal oversight of testing and punishment in concert with horsemen appointed to the board is the way to go.

      Leaving up to the horsemen not the best answer. Kentucky HBPA pushing back on Lasix for 2YOs after house rule established last year for this. Where are the real horsemen??

  3. Anyone who can’t train a horse without Lasix should turn in his or her license.

    Non-partisan observation: the different approaches state by state to who can do what–even opening churches–should be a sober reminder that the chances of any nationwide set of rules for racing is a pipe dream. These are life or death decisions and there is nothing close to uniformity.

    It doesn’t please me to say this but it is the unfortunate reality

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