A Carmel business owner and veterinarian was among more than two dozen people who were charged this week with participating in “a widespread, corrupt” doping scheme, the latest black eye for the troubled horse racing industry.
Gregory Skelton, owner of Skelton Equine Sports Medicine LLC, 7149 Alice Paul Lane in Carmel, was charged in a misbranding conspiracy that involved creating and giving performance-enhancing drugs to racehorses, leading to the death of at least one high-profile horse.
Federal prosecutors brought charges against 27 individuals for a far-reaching operation, alleging that racehorse trainers, veterinarians and others had manufactured, distributed and received “adulterated and misbranded PEDs and . . . secretly administer[ed] those PEDs to racehorses,” according to the charging documents.
Jorge Navarro, a trainer whose horses have earned close to $35 million over his career, is at the center of the alleged scheme. Federal prosecutors allege that Navarro gave a horse named XY Jet adulterated and misbranded performance-enhancing drugs before wins in Florida and Dubai last year that earned $1.5 million. The 8-year-old XY Jet died of a heart attack in January after a career that saw him earn more than $8 million in purses over 26 starts.
Veterinarians Erica Garcia, Seth Fishman and Skelton were charged as accomplices to Navarro; prosecutors allege they either illegally manufactured the PEDs or illegally administered them at Navarro’s director. A number of other people were charged with helping Navarro obtain, ship and administer the drugs.
Skelton is accused of selling customized PEDs, including an analgesic and “joint block” to Navarro and fellow defendant Christopher Oakes, who also is accused of providing PEDs to Navarro.
According to Skelton’s LinkedIn profile, his company provides sports medicine and surgery for equine athletes and offers “recommendations to owners and trainers to maximize the health and potential of each animal.”
Before starting his business, he worked as a veterinarian in the Indianapolis area since 2005, providing sports medicine and surgery to horses.
Skelton could face up to five years in prison if convicted. He did not immediately respond to a voice message left to his business phone number Wednesday.
The investigation found that the trainers and vets were able to deceive horse racing regulators by administering PEDs that were “difficult or impossible to detect in anti-PED tests,” some of them unapproved and administered using methods “that can injure and, in extreme cases, kill the horse.”
The drugs also masked the horses’ ability to feel pain, causing the animals to overexert themselves during exercise.
“These substances stimulated endurance, deadened nerves, increased oxygen intake and reduced inflammation,” William F. Sweeney Jr., assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York field office, said Monday at a news conference. “What actually happened to the horses amounted to nothing less than abuse.”
The indictments were handed down amid a time of increased scrutiny on the horse racing industry, which has seen a rise in fatal racehorse injuries over the past year. In January, a House of Representatives committee heard testimony from supporters of the Horse Racing Integrity Act, which would establish an independent, private nonprofit corporation that would administer an anti-doping program for racehorses.
Graham Motion, who trained 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and is an advocate for the act, wrote Monday on Twitter that it was “a sad day for racing but a long time coming.
“A good day for those who try to play by the rules,” Motion wrote. “We will all be better for it.”
Among those charged was trainer Jason Servis, accused of “orchestrating a widespread scheme of covertly obtaining and administering adulterated and misbranded PEDs” to “virtually all of the racehorses under his control.”
One of Servis’s horses, Maximum Security, crossed the finish line first in last year’s Kentucky Derby, though he later was disqualified for interference. Last month, Maximum Security won the inaugural Saudi Cup, the sport’s most lucrative race.
The investigation covered a time period beginning in January 2017 and continuing through January of this year, and involved races across the country. FBI agents on Monday raided barns at Gulfstream Park West, near Miami, and the Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach, Fla.
“By evading PED prohibitions and deceiving regulators and horse racing authorities, among others,” the indictment alleges, “participants sought to improve race performance and obtain prize money from racetracks throughout the United States and other countries, including in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio, Kentucky, and the United Arab Emirates.”
In 2017, Navarro was fined $10,000 by the New Jersey Racing Commission for “conduct extremely detrimental to racing” after a YouTube video surfaced in which he was heard suggesting the use of illegal substances while rooting on a horse at Gulfstream Park in Florida, one trained by Jorge’s brother, Marcial. Jorge Navarro’s horses were banned by tracks in Delaware, Maryland and Indiana after the fine was levied.
At least two of Navarro’s horses tested positive for cocaine and other drugs in 2017, though the trainer maintained that the blood samples were contaminated.
Trainer Nicholas Surick also was charged for administering a PED called “red acid” that reduced inflammation in horses’ joints, thereby improving race performance. The PEDs used by the trainers in the indictment were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use on an animal and were designed not to show up on drug tests, according to prosecutors. They also featured false or misleading labels, using the terms “for research purposes only” or “homeopathic.”
In an intercepted telephone call recorded on Feb. 1, 2019, Surick implicated Navarro in a conversation with defendant Michael Tannuzzo, saying that Navarro secretly disposed of the bodies of horses that had died under his care.
“You know how many f—– horses [Navarro] f—— killed and broke down that I made disappear?” Surick allegedly said. “You know how much trouble he could get in . . . if they found out . . . the six horses we killed.”
A total of four indictments were handed down Monday. One accuses veterinarian Louis Grasso and others of manufacturing and distributing customized PEDs and says trainer Thomas Guido III obtained and administered the drugs to racehorses. Another says Sarah Izhaki and daughter Ashley Lebowitz distributed an adulterated and misbranded version of the drug erythropoietin, known in the industry under the brand name Epogen or the shorthand “epo.”
The women also are accused of selling a masking agent nicknamed “the Devil,” which Izhaki described in a recorded telephone call with a confidential informant.
“You put it in the horse, you can use coke: it will come back negative,” she said.
A final indictment accuses Scott Robinson and Scott Mangini of operating an “online marketplace” at which racehorse owners and trainers could obtain misbranded and adulterated PEDs.
At a news conference Monday, Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said additional charges could be forthcoming.