Racing’s Dead They Say, Long Live Racing

March 11, 2020

It is the first day of live racing at Gulfstream Park following the indictment of 27 people, including trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro, both of whom were stabled there. The first race was won by a horse trained by Gilberto Zerpa, at even money. Zerpa is currently 31% off the claim with his last 45 off the claim runners. That is a lofty percentage. He won with 34 of 107 starters in 2019 for a 32% strike rate. The early pick 5 pool was about 250K as opposed to last Wednesday when it was nearly 420K. Racing’s dead they say, long live racing.

One of the most glaring questions, and there are many, which arose from the events of earlier in the week, and probably the most important to the sport and industry is :

“what will change?”

The answer is in two things, the details, and the “tells.” There are always tells. There are always details. Take it from a lifelong gambler. Tells, once you spot them, there is no bigger edge. Before we try and answer the question posed, let us acknowledge something I think is quite relevant. Sure I may be biased, but I am also right. In relation to the horse juicing indictments, the gamblers, and nobody else were the smartest people in the room. It was the tells. We all saw them. We all knew in our hearts they don’t lie. Details don’t lie either.

It was more than the abnormally high win percentages. While we all knew guys like Mack Miller, Angel Penna, Horatio Luro, Charlie Whittingham, Woody Stephens, Allen Jerkens, and so many others had well bred, high quality horses, and knew how to train them, they could never match the win percentages of the super trainers of today. Let us not fixate on that as there is so much more. The horses re breaking. The horses looking beat and finding the extra energy Maximum Security did in re rallying to win the inaugural Saudi Cup, a race we were told and wagered on believing it was drug free. Who believes it was? I was fooled too. After the Saudi Cup I tweeted, wow, one tough racehorse. We’ll never know will we?

How about the horses claimed from super trainers and how they regress if they can make it to the races at all. How about the reduced levels they compete at when they do make it. Shall we talk about improving Beyer figures, or any speed figure including Thoro-Graph or Ragozins ? We can talk about those declining same figures when these horses move to other barns. Bettors, especially seasoned ones, all recognized the tells. We bettors, as the ones who fund the sport, had no say. We were amongst the many victims.

Sadly, we were forced to encompass cheating into our handicapping and ticket structuring. This made a difficult game nearly impossible, and handed any edge to be had to less competent handicappers, with bigger bankrolls playing for higher rebates. Sure, that worked short term, but can and will it sustain the sport? We’ll look at what the tells say shortly.

Being a lifelong player, and for many years a pretty significant one at that, who beat this game several times over, I now feel like a fool. I allowed my love of this sport to cloud my better judgement and dupe me into a sucker’s game. Yes, sucker’s game, that is what this industry turned this glorious former skill game into. I recognized the industry problems early on. Juicing and cheating is nothing new. I have seen it before. The frequency and level of it changed. There were two triggers. Oddly enough the first was the IRS taking away the tax deductions breeders and horse owners used to enjoy. That made the game go from one guy owning 40 horses, most of which he bred to race, to 40 guys owning a piece of one horse. This escalated the have to win now and today mentality which spawned the super trainers, and if nothing else created the need for an edge. It also changed the breeding industry. From breed to race we went to breed to sell. You think you could just have offered Nelson Bunker Hunt or Paul Mellon a fat check for a piece of one of their horses? Good luck with that. I remember Angel Penna once telling me when I was a kid looking at the Phipps horses in that big barn that was right at the entrance to the Belmont stable area:

“you’re looking at the best horses money can’t buy.”

I didn’t get it at the time. I did years later. They were priceless to the Phipps family, and not for sale, hence money can’t buy.

The next trigger was the widespread legalization of Lasix and other race day medications. For years a horse who needed Lasix was considered a second stringer, and had less value as a stallion. We had full fields, and more durable horses. Coincidences are for romance novels I always say. Many say Lasix is not a performance enhancer. On the other hand you have Hall of Fame trainers saying they prefer to run without it, but can’t compete if they don’t use it. It is not that deep or complicated. It is what it is. You either get it or you don’t. The win now at all costs mentality has overcome the Sport of Kings. How else does one explain Mike Repole, a successful owner who has won some of the biggest races in the country and competes at the highest levels of the game, having Jorge Navarro claim horses for him as recently as Man With a Plan on December 14, 2019 for 35K? He was partners on Vino Rosso who won the last Breeders’ Cup Classic, and he claims with Navarro? I get he loves and supports the sport big time but did he never see the “juice man video?” Please tell me he is too smart to give a horse to that guy.

We now have the result of those two triggers that pushed the boulder off the peak of the mountain. It hasn’t stopped thundering down yet. Sure many got rich, and still are. The expense was the game and all of the storied history it carries, and the horses who have died unnecessarily.

I thought I had my edge. I can beat anyone at their game, and in their backyard I thought. I was wrong, and the last few years have taught me that. I have done better than most, but nothing like I used to. Not even close. The cheating got me. My strategy was to bet 75% less than what I used to, and to bet 90% of that 75% on the big days in the big races when things were level. Kentucky Derby Day, Belmont Day, Travers Day, the Breeders’ Cup, the big days out West and at Keeneland. There were maybe 15 or so days I cherished and looked forward. Once you get used to betting several thousand a day, and cashing six figures with some degree of regularity, betting $1 or $2 pick 4’s and 5’s just doesn’t do it for you. I still did well, made some scores, but again, nothing like the 20 plus year run I enjoyed.

Can you imagine how I felt when I read in the indictment virtually all of the horses Jason Servis started had run with PED’s including Kentucky Derby first finisher Maximum Security? My first thought was World of Trouble in the Breeders’ Cup. After all, there is no test for some of this stuff, and racing officials don’t care most times, at least that is what the details and tells say. Then I thought of Shancelot in The Amsterdam at Saratoga. I remember how hard he was bet to 6-5 despite all the speed in the race. I thought of “the juice man video” starring Jorge Navarro and his owner proclaiming how they “expletive” everybody and how they just cashed for another 20K and how life is good. For those of you who forgot the race, let us refresh our memories:

Anyone who thinks that was on the level please raise your hand.

These guys were indeed robbing everybody. These guys were endangering riders and horses and killing horses. Do not lose sight of that.

What was funny then, and is still funny today, is how so many in racing condoned this, still condone this, and speak of the accomplishments as if they were done off training and hay, oats and water. Lauding these people is at the least condoning and at the worst even encouraging these people. Trainer Tom Morley, a New York based trainer, who is married to Maggie Wolfendale, a New York based racing analyst, tweeted the following after the indictments became public:

” Very good for horse racing. Yesterday was a pivotal start in the new horse racing. This sort of stuff won’t be tolerated.”

“Today is a good day. Friday will be better when we don’t have to run against these hideous cheats. There will be more to come.”

Sounds great. I hope he is right. The tells and details say different. I like and respect Maggie’s work. I think she is both knowledgeable and excellent. I actually hate to have to point this out, but I care more about the sport, and more about X Y Jet and those like him. I don’t know when Tom Morley was enlightened, nor what the dinner conversations are like in the Morley household, and how much if at all they discuss work. I get people doing their job. I respect it. I respect Maggie and her contributions. I think she is among one of the best at what she does. That said, I do not feel given the circumstances then or now that:

“excellent job” “how much he means to you” and most importantly “a true horseman”

were the best phrases. I think true horseman, who would never stoop to the levels these individuals allegedly did, are done a disservice when you say things like that. Again these guys were endangering and killing horses and robbing all of us. I believe Maggie is too sharp for this. Listen and you tell me:

Why bring this up? It was difficult, especially because it was Maggie, and also Tom who I believe is a true horseman and straight shooter. We do however have to learn from what we have done oh so very wrong. We have to reverse what we allowed this sport to erode to. Until we as an industry refuse to accept this behavior and treat participation as a privilege, and not act as if we are desperate for new owners and horses, things will not get better. They won’t change.

Less is more. Quality and integrity over quantity and cesspools.

For years we have had people like Andy Serling and Steve Byk speaking in a manner I would call condescending to bettors. Remember them?, the customers, who also turned out to be the smartest ones in the room, whenever they inferred or outright accused any trainer or rider of cheating. They have even used insults to imply a stupidity level that didn’t deserve to be taken seriously. When the indictment hit, they were three to five to say innocent until proven guilty and let the process unfold. We all agree with that in theory. That is a criminal matter. The integrity of the sport doesn’t always reach the criminal level. That is where the industry has to step up. They can, but most times they don’t. Sometimes when they do they are wrong. It is a dysfunctional nightmare. I’ll explain.

Past performances, numbers, and the like don’t lie. All the evidence the industry needed was there. They chose to ignore it with Servis, Navarro and still do with many others. The indictments did not change that as of yet. It was totally acceptable to tell Jerry Hollendorfer get off the grounds you are not welcome here with no public ruling or explanation given. Navarro and Servis on the other hand, were welcomed. Where were all the catch all rules? They saw the video. He was fined. They saw the odds fluctuations. They saw 5-1 go to 5-2 out of the gate in the 2018 Dwyer Stakes won by Servis’ Firenze Fire. It was all alright, but Hollendorfer pack your bags.

Rick Dutrow, one of the best horseman ever, yes ever, who had no breakdowns, gets 10 years despite a 30 year steward stating the syringes that led to the suspension and contained a legal drug were planted by a track investigator. Surprising? It shouldn’t be, we are an industry who still has not figured out how to stagger post times, supply free basic data for wagering purposes to our customers, or use software that can calculate real time odds. Anybody take a look at Navarro’s lengthy list of violations? He ran at Saratoga and the Breeders’ Cup last year. Rick Dutrow watched from home. Anyone see a problem with that?

Any owner who has horses with any cheater or trainer who drugs horses is complicit. There is a rule in racing that the trainer is always responsible. So is the owner. The owner employs the trainer. They pay the bills and I would suggest to be an owner there are two essentials. You have to be able to afford ownership and all it entails. How many trainers have heard we have to run and get a check so I can pay the bills? Too many. You also have the obligation to do some due diligence and not employ a trainer who drugs, kills, or endangers horses and riders. The reality is that is the worst of what these people do.

Robbing all of us blind is just collateral damage, not the other way around.

Michael Dubb, a prominent owner, who happened to have horses with Jason Servis along with other trainers, and is also a member of the NYRA Board of Directors made the following statements, according to an article dated March 10, 2020 by David Greenig:

“Whatever the directive is of the state we’re going to comply with. Whatever it is, it is. At this point, it’s not about me – this is bigger than me. It’s about the black eye on the sport and making sure this doesn’t happen again.”

“I have always wanted to be a different kind of owner, not just somebody who takes from the game but somebody who gives back to the game whether it’s been advocating for housing, daycare, the chaplaincy, the backstretch in general. To be involved in something that gives the sport a black eye when I only want to help, it’s gut-wrenching.”

“World of Trouble was a bit of an anomaly, but [Servis] didn’t have my top tier of horses. “Nonetheless, the World of Trouble situation hurts.”

The article also stated:

“Dubb, who owns approximately 100 horses, many in partnership, said he plans to move the horses he had with Servis to Chad Brown, Brad Cox, Todd Pletcher, Mike Maker, Rob Atras, Christophe Clement, and Ralph Nicks.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Dubb many years ago at Gulfstream Park. I am certain he would not recall it. He was very pleasant, and from what I understand he has done a great deal for people on the backstretch, and for racing. In my opinion he has failed as an owner and it doesn’t matter how many races he has won, nor how many horses he has a piece of. Breeding World of Trouble is problematic. I’ll go into that later. There are two kinds of knowledge here. Actual knowledge, or constructive knowledge. Actual refers to actually knowing first hand. Constructive refers to presumption of knowledge because you should have known. He should have known, or at the least been very suspicious. Because of his reputation and that brief meeting I can give him a pass there. I shouldn’t but I can. The tells are bad though and they are in his statements in the DRF article. You’ll either get that or you won’t. I would love an off the record candid conversation with Mr. Dubb on that but likely won’t get it. His reaction has me concerned about how much progress we as an industry we will actually make from these indictments.

Bettors didn’t just become the smartest people in the room. The Eclipse Awards were only a few months ago. Seth Klarman, another who is reportedly a billionaire and one of the Forbes 400, and owner of Horse of the Year Bricks and Mortar, along with a slew of other stakes horses gave a speech that was pretty much heralded by the industry. John Panagot, jockey agent for Javier Castellano, and also stable agent for Robert LaPenta I believe, called him possibly the most brilliant mind in racing for saying just about what many two dollar bettors have been saying for years. Because he is a billionaire, and hedge fund manager all of a sudden it is brilliant. It really came down to us working together to protect the horses and improve the sport. Despite the laurels he received, nobody paid much more attention to him than they did the two dollar bettors. That is just how this industry rolls. Tells. All tells.

Following the arrest of Jason Servis, Gary West, the owner of Maximum Security expressed his surprise and disappointment in what transpired. Again, another owner who ignored all the signs, tells, and past performances. The worst part of his involvement is similar to Mr. Dubb’s in my opinion. It is the reaction. We have learned Maximum Security will continue to train to race, and that will be done by Bob Baffert.

First, I am surprised Bob would take the horse. More importantly however is keeping the horse in training, and the plan to breed him. Coolmore bought the breeding rights as I understand it. I can’t imagine they are pleased with the recent developments. This goes deeper than that. Mr. West is said to care about the sport, horses, and the breed. I go by what I see, not what they say. He may, but I do not see it at this point.

How can you feel good about racing a horse who thus far has run on who knows what. Do we know everything this horse was given? Probably not. Do we know what things like frog juice, snake venom, blood builders, and who knows whatever other synthetic concoctions this poor horse was given can do long term? No we do not. Do we know if it is dangerous to him, riders, or other horses? No, we do not. Is it worth the risk? I say no. I say a big no if you are someone fortunate enough to not have to worry about paying your next bill.

Can anybody tell us what these unknown substances we don’t even have tests for can do to the breed’s gene pool? Do we want to breed into that crap shoot? Further, can we do that and proclaim to love horses, care about horses, and want to protect horses? I say no, we cannot. We owe the thoroughbred a lot more than that and it is time we behave as an industry accordingly.

Bradley Weisbord, a young Bloodstock Agent, is also an example of a tell, and part of the problem and not the solution in my opinion. Bradley penned a letter on behalf of his BSW Bloodstock which read in part:

“We will never and have never knowingly supported a trainer that has been accused of or has been caught cheating.”

He talks in his tweets and promotions a lot about integrity. He claims zero knowledge and carefully used the word “knowingly.” Here is the problem. Back on May 8th, 2019 Bradley said the following on Twitter in defense of Jason Servis who was indeed being accused of cheating.

“He runs them where they SHOULD win.”

“Most don’t run them where they are meant to win. I manage 400 horses. Use 30 different trainers. You think I would know.”

To be clear he did not mean you think I would know as a question. It was obviously a testament to his prowess. He was schooled by the Tweet back at him that followed by the account @OnTheMarcBets, a well known Twitter profile.

“Doesn’t appear that you know anything if you think Servis doesn’t cheat. It’s legit assumed.”

It doesn’t come close to ending here. The tells are there.

Bill Finley quoted Michelle Crawford, the owner of Shancelot, the horse who ran a hole in the wind at Saratoga in the video above as saying:

“We are disgusted. I spend all my free time running around advocating for horse health and after care, so I am disgusted. On the phone right now to line up truckers to get our horses out of that barn.”

Well in her defense maybe she has very very little free time. Who she gives her horses will tell a lot. A 10%, 20% or 30% or higher trainer? We shall find out.

How is it so many horseplayers knew, strongly suspected, or at the least had it on their handicapping screen and so many owners and racetrack officials are shocked and blindsided?

Rockingham Ranch, who came out looking bad in the indictment without being named or indicted, indicated they were sending horses to Brad Cox who replied due to the recent events he would not take them. He is taking Michael Dubb’s however. It seemed in the indictment the one of the Rockingham owners participated in a call with Jorge Navarro that was caught on wiretap where they discussed why a horse was under performing and if he was being given “everything.” He was and then they decided not to discuss it on the phone, after they discussed it on the phone. The FBI took no action. Will the industry? That’s a tell.

Ron Paolucci, known to be a straight shooter weighed in back on October 13, 2018. He had horses with Navarro too. He said this:

“Let me state for the record Jorge @JorgeNavarro Navarro is a very good horseman not one-zero horse came up positive in anyway! I have the utmost respect for the job he does-sure he did that stupid video but how many especially myself have not done stupid stuff. #letsmoveon”

Ron knows how to handicap, he gets less of a pass than most.

One problem our industry has is not enough people in significant positions even know what an ice cold double is. They think it is winning the double.

It becomes all too obvious how this type of drugging and animal cruelty can go on. We share in culpability. All of us who knew or suspected. Personally I should have written sooner and spoken out more and made a nuisance of myself. Maybe X Y Jet would be here if I did. Probably not though, as I am a high school drop out not thought to be nearly as brilliant as Mr. Klarman, and nobody listened to him either.

Many reject the Horse Racing Integrity Act and fear government intervention. Well the IRS may have started the ball rolling but the FBI sure showed they can make a dent where we refused to, and sadly will probably continue to refuse to. The tells are there. We can all see them. The past performances are also there. We can all read them.

We allowed people to poison horses, kill them, dispose of them, rob racetracks, breeders, bettors, and workers. We could have stopped it. We could have made it harder. We allowed polluting of the thoroughbred gene pool, the ramifications of which we may not comprehend for years to come. We can still fix it all, but that ship will leave the port sooner than later. Time is of the essence. I have a dozen bullet points if I am ever invited to a meeting. I won’t hold my breath.

What will change was the question. The cheaters will always be a step ahead of the testing. If you don’t know what you are testing for, how can you test for it? We have repeatedly proven incapable of policing ourselves and even using our catch all rules effectively. The effect of this latest cheating scandal will be felt for years. The cheaters were not the ones indicted. Our sport was. We allowed, condoned, and even encouraged corruption on our grandest stages. The tells point to things going back to business as usual, likely sooner than later. I can only hope the tells are wrong or something changes. Racing’s dead they say. Long live racing, be it dead or alive.

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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Comments

  1. rjd@erols.com Mar 12, 2020 at 6:14 am

    Excellent article!!!! And just for the record, (1) Frank Martin had a legit lifetime win percentage of 17.07% and he was one of the best ever.
    (2) Little Andy is condescending to everyone…and I can’t figure out why.

  2. xpertadvice4u@yahoo.com Mar 12, 2020 at 9:08 am

    Jonathan, I greatly admire and respect the achievements and success that you have had as a handicapper, horseplayer and journalist/entrepreneur.

    There will always be details and philosophies we disagree about, but I have always believed we have much that we agree about in terms of perspectives. Your comment here is one of the best examples:

    “For years we have had people like Andy Serling and Steve Byk speaking in a manner I would call condescending to bettors. Remember them?, the customers, who also turned out to be the smartest ones in the room, whenever they inferred or outright accused any trainer or rider of cheating. They have even used insults to imply a stupidity level that didn’t deserve to be taken seriously.”

    Everything I do has been motivated by allegiance to the Social Bettors. They were the people who turned this into something more than merely “The Sport of Kings.”

    They are the only ones who love the Game enough without having to exploit it in any way, and they are a big part of the group whom you feel are treated in a condescending and dismissive manner.

    It was the Social Bettors that Grandstands needed to be built to accommodate, by the Thousands, in the days when there truly WERE Crowds at the tracks.

    It was the Social Bettors who were willing to spend money to be entertained, without every dollar having to be justified by Maximum Optimal ROI and Expected Value.

    In truth, for Elite Gamblers, the cheating is just one more variable that is part of their job to quantify and weight in their algorithms and decision making. As you well know, hard core Gamblers will bet on ANYTHING, and they are not above using the “Tells” you mention so frequently in order to achieve an edge.

    Tells are a form of information. Information is Power in Betting Markets, and helps to make them more Efficient, as the Economists say.

    In order for money to be made betting on Horse Racing, there has to be inefficiency in the Market. Value Bettors look for inefficiencies – gaps in information – and Tells are just another form of Angle used to exploit and optimize ROI.

    Andy Beyer publicly bemoaned the existence of “Super Trainers” over a decade ago – and the need to factor that into Handicapping – and so did Steve Davidowitz, and many other experts and not-so-expert commentators.

    But we keep handicapping and playing the horses anyways, and our Complacency does indeed amount to Complicity, which we all need to be accountable for.

    On your critique of Maggie: her job is to promote the image of the sport and the culture which her employer wants promoted.

    The sound bite you cited is within the context of the Pomp and Circumstance that have to accompany the highest Grades of Racing. Her comments were in the context of that moment of celebration, and Jason Servis’ emotions were tangible and palpable and and part of the Human Drama – and legitimate – even though his training techniques and ethics may not have been.

    In that moment, Servis WAS a Horseman, celebrating a victory in a Horse Race, and it was legitimate for her to refer to him as such, and I don’t dispute that he HAS been a horseman for much of his life. I just dispute the validity of many of his wins, and reject his ethics in doing so.

    Let’s not get caught up in Cancel Culture. We can criticize and rebuke people without demonizing or dehumanizing them, and without asserting that the only thing that matters about them is what they did wrong.

    Servis did a lot of things in good faith as a trainer and a horseman that we should not pretend never existed because he supplemented what he was doing with drugs. Servis has a far better record as a trainer than Navarro, even though they were using the same drugs. I don’t believe that he never did anything to get where he is EXCEPT to drug horses.

    How many athletes do we know who actually WERE the best, but started using Performance Enhancing Drugs because they wanted to STAY THE BEST?

    I have been one of the harshest critics of Maximum Security from the beginning, and called him a “fraud” in terms of showing no evidence of being able to run at a fast pace and sustain it at the levels which past Derby Winners had shown.

    I cited the Past Performances, and presented statistics and data suggesting that Maximum Security was not of the same caliber as past Champions and did not deserve “the hype.”

    You and I argued after the Derby, and exchanged harsh words. You mocked the statistics which I presented and you said that you watched his performance down the stretch in the Derby, and that he was unquestioningly “a fighter”:

    Quote: ” I have watched races my whole life and MS was a fighter down the lane. I don’t think he’d have let anyone go bye if they went around again.”

    I would argue that what you watched down the stretch was NOT a fighter, but a doped horse.

    You had access to the Past Performances, and the “Tells” at the time, but you spoke from the Heart, based upon what you had witnessed in the moment, based upon what you had been led to believe.

    And, I believe the same applies to Maggie Wolfendale, and the video clip you presented.

    In the context and the emotion of a great moment in Sport – the winning of an Important Stakes race, Jason Servis *was* a great horseman and everybody wanted to share in the pomp and circumstance.

    Maggie spoke from the heart, and nobody was going to be asking impertinent questions about Tells.

    I don’t see that she had some special obligation in that moment to turn to the camera and announce that what we had all just witnessed was a scam, an illusion, a fraud, and that Jason Servis was also a fraud – and had never achieved anything as a horseman without cheating.

    I totally agree with most of what you say in your article, and respect your willingness to actually name people, and address their roles in maintaining the illusion of the Emperor’s New Clothes – which nobody wanted to discuss the reality of.

    There is plenty of blame for our current state of affairs to go round, and I believe we all are complicit to some degree.

    To some extent, we’ve all permitted this to happen.

    But I am really, really glad that the people who are criminally liable under the Law are finally going to meet some retribution,
    and I am glad that we have your historical insights and inside perspectives to help us form our own.

    Like you, I really hope that things WILL change, but I have a sense of pessimism about how much or how lasting the change will be.

    The fact that you are willing to speak out, candidly, and bluntly, is part of what makes the water glass half full.

  3. Donald Henderson Mar 24, 2020 at 2:24 pm

    Zerpa was the only trainer that could IMPROVE a Navarro horse!!!!!! He must have even better drugs and pump em even fuller than Navarro! I notice he went radio silent after the raids. Can’t wait to see him in orange.

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