If there was a Mount Rushmore for cheating trainers most horseplayers would have Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis chiseled on that mountain. Anyone with a modicum of common sense understood that the miracle performances these two consistently performed could only be orchestrated by the use of performance enhancing drugs. We all agree, after being arrested for a major drug scheme to purchase and administer serious illegal performance enhancing drugs, they deserve their day in court and are innocent until proven guilty. We will wait until the process plays out. But if they are not found guilty for this it might be the biggest upset ever in horse racing.
Some people are calling Monday, March 9th (the day of these arrests) a dark day for racing. I disagree. It may be the single most important day in the history of the sport. The dark days were virtually every day prior since 1998 when the infusion of PED's overtook all sports. The public had zero trust in horse racing. The game has languished far outside the purview of the sports following nation. (Just look for Horse Racing on ESPN. It was moved to a second tier spot on their website and most recently removed altogether). There are variety of reasons for the disinterest but the lack of integrity was at the forefront. The dark days have been here for years, decades even. The sport has a chance to turn the corner after Monday. The opportunity is there.
The biggest issue the game has is the inter-dependency on things that are detrimental to the game. The tracks covet horses to fill their races. As we all know the more horses in a race the more likely players will bet on that product. Many trainers with large stables are those with highly questionable methods. Tracks need the shady trainers. Shady trainers need tracks to run at, not to mention soft oversight on their operations. This is the lay of the land and has been virtually untouched for more than twenty years.
I've handicapped hundreds of thousands of races since 1986. When you analyze that many races and horses you tend to know what to expect from a horse. For the first dozen years I followed the game I remember trainer angles as a supporting handicapping angle but horse-first past performances were very reliable on their own. Somewhere around the time that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were hitting baseballs 450 feet on a daily basis, and Lance Armstrong was starting his run on cycling dominance, horse racing changed. That year (1998) Real Quiet won the Kentucky Derby after needing seven races to break his maiden. Charismatic won the next year at 31-1 after running in claiming races a couple of times.
Over the next twenty or so years, the trainer angle became so overarching in the handicapping process that the soul of sport was lost. What makes horse racing the greatest gambling game ever created is the ability to marry up many data points to draw a hypothesis on how the race will unfold and then make a bet to support that opinion. If hidden trainer methods block out all other handicapping principles, the game is not worth playing. The smart money in the pools made this situation ten-times worse. I often had to hold my nose to stay involved in the game and it was getting harder and harder to rationalize.
As mentioned, the poor relationship between those involved removed the will of diligent oversight. To catch Navarro and Servis all one needed to do is combine illogical past performances and major move-ups off claims with anomalies in the betting pools. The incentive for tracks to catch nefarious trainers just wasn't there. Parimutuel wagering removed the incentive. Why does a track care how money made its way into the pool? They take their cut and are agnostic on who collects. This is problematic. I've always said that cheating would be addressed if the track was on the hook for payouts via fixed odds.
Here are a just a couple of move-up examples from Navarro and Servis. There are literally dozens and dozens that look just like this. If it happens once or twice, ok. But consistently? No chance.
Where does the game go from here? It's really hard to say. Horse racing has been slow to move and even downright stubborn in doing what's right for the long term health of the sport. A much more serious approach to protecting the integrity of the game is the only thing that horseplayers will stand for. If that happens, I might be able to play the game without getting creative in rationalizing why I do.