True Crime Thursday – Racehorse Doping

Photo credit: MJ Boswell – Wikimedia

By Debbie Burke



In March, 2022, Federal Correctional Institution Miami, a low-security facility that was formerly home to Manuel Noriega, welcomed a new resident: Jorge Navarro, a thoroughbred horse trainer who pled guilty to federal charges of doping racehorses with performance enhancing drugs (PED).

Navarro’s nickname was “Juice Man,” a moniker he had emblazoned on a pair of Croc shoes he kept at his barn.

In January, 2020, one of Navarro’s horses, XY Jet, died of a heart attack at the age of eight. XY Jet had won $3 million in purses including the Dubai Golden Shaheen race. At the time of the horse’s death, Navarro gave this statement:

With deep regret, I am sorry to notify you that X Y Jet died this morning as a result of a heart attack. X Y Jet was more than a horse on my trained list. (He) was the one that took us through a wonderful and exciting roller coaster of emotions. He always fought against adversity and despite the injuries that affected him during his career, he always brought out that kind of champion he was.

PEDs used in horses do not actually improve their performance but rather mask pain that could slow them down.

In December, 2021, U.S. Attorney Damien Williams said:

Structures designed for the protection of the horses abused in this case failed repeatedly; fixtures of the industry – owners, veterinarians, and trainers – flouted rules and disregarded their animals’ health while hypocritically incanting a love for the horses under their control and ostensible protection. Standing as the keystone for this structure of abuse, corruption, and duplicity was Jorge Navarro, a trainer who treated his animals as expendable commodities in the service of his ‘sport.’

Navarro made a tearful statement at his sentencing hearing: “I became a selfish person who only cared about winning and I lost my way.”

Navarro was fined $26.8 million and given the maximum sentence of five years.

At FCI Miami, his options include working in the commissary, laundry, kitchen, or doing landscaping with a pay range of 12 to 40 cents an hour.

Paying his fine could take a while.

In a similar scenario, the 2021 winner of the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit, was later disqualified after he tested positive for corticosteroids. On December 6, 2021, the horse collapsed and died at age three during a workout at Santa Anita Park.

Corticosteroids act differently on the body than anabolic steroids, which are long-lasting drugs used for muscle building and strength. According to

Athletes have reported that corticosteroids help them push through the pain of extreme exertion and allow them to recover faster for the next event. The benefits of corticosteroids wear off pretty fast, which is why they are prohibited in-competition only.

Medina Spirit’s trainer, Bob Baffert, was suspended for 90 days by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and fined $7500. Baffert, a Hall of Fame trainer, also forfeited his purse from the Derby win and was banned from entering horses in the Derby for 2022 and 2023. Hearings to delay the suspension are ongoing as of March, 2022.

The day before Medina Spirit’s death, Baffert’s horses swept the Los Alamitos Stakes.

Were any of those horses tested? Who knows? 

Starting in December 2018, thirty-seven horses died at Santa Anita in less than a year.

In December, 2021, reported:

Former Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey organized a task force to investigate and released a report two years ago that found ‘no criminal wrongdoing’ on Santa Anita’s part.

Existing safeguards against doping are not working and many critics are calling for a ban on horseracing.


TKZers: What do you think? Should horseracing be banned? What action would clean up the sport?



An innocent father in prison. A guilty rapist set free. A surprise son from the past.

DNA links three puzzling cases in my new thriller Until Proven Guilty. Order at Amazon. 

This entry was posted in #truecrimethursday, Writing by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the Zebulon Award. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, Dead Man's Bluff, Crowded Hearts, Flight to Forever, and Until Proven Guilty. Debbie's articles have won journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers.

44 thoughts on “True Crime Thursday – Racehorse Doping

  1. I don’t know horse racing well enough to have suggestions, & will refrain from sharing my thoughts about those who intentionally harm animals, horses or otherwise.

    This post does speak of why we will never run out of books to write–humans, any humans, find unending ways to do wrong, and there is always a need for justice. So thriller, suspense, mystery, & other writers will be set for life with story fodder.

  2. Debbie, you’re gonna get me started, so I’ll just say “yes.” It should go the way of dog racing, which is almost extinct and should go all the way into oblivion.

  3. Wonderful post, Debbie. Thanks for opening our eyes to the problems of chemical cheating. It is a complex problem with lots of shades of gray. For example, can you treat an injured animal with a drug that would be of benefit, but is also prohibited for competition?

    With humans’ love of all things sports, racing, and competition – and winning – it is unlikely that horseracing will be banned. And it is likely things will get far more complicated with continuing illegal human use, while on the other end of the spectrum transgender athletes use hormone blockers and wish to compete in a less competitive class. The human race will continue to find ways to compete and cheat.

    Wow, I sound horribly grumpy today. I think I need a corticosteroid injection for my arthritic pain.

    Thanks, Debbie. And I hope your day is a good one.

    • Thanks for bringing up an important medical point, Steve. Steroids can be wonderful drugs that ease suffering in humans and animals but can be misused with horrible effects.

      You’re right that “The human race will continue to find ways to compete and cheat.”

      I’m right behind you in line for the corticosteroid injection.

  4. Sad. I don’t know anything about horse racing or horses. In kindergarten, a woman with asked me if I wanted to pet her horse. When I reached up, the animal grabbed hold of my arm and whipped me across the parking lot. Still have the scars. After the incident, I had to go through a series of rabies shots. So, I admire them from afar now.

  5. Debbie, definitely heart-breaking to read about those wonderful animals pushed to perform when they are in pain. I don’t know if sending “Juice Man” to prison and forcing him to repay a hefty fine will send a strong enough message to other dopers to end the practice. I’d like to think it would. But, Joe may be right that banning horse racing is the only viable alternative.

  6. Thanks for this eye-opening article, Debbie. It seems that some people will do terrible things to satisfy their greed, but abusing an innocent animal is in a category all by itself. Personally, I think the offenders should be punished by having to eat grass and pull a plow for the rest of their lives.

    I have mixed feelings about banning horse-racing. There have been some memorable horses like Secretariat and Seabiscuit that inspired people by their performances on the track. But then there are the others like XY Jet. I don’t understand why there can’t be strict enforcement of anti-doping rules.

  7. Oh, what humans do to each other and to the world, in the name of money and power.

    It wouldn’t hurt my feelings any to ban any sport that exploits animals. But, I’m sure there’d be unintended consequences. Consequences that I’m not experienced enough nor qualified to speculate about.

    It just makes me sad to see any of God’s creatures used, abused, and used up for man’s pleasure and profit. 🙁

    There might be a story angle here…to bring this sad subject to light. It’s probably been done before, though.

  8. I believe that banning is never the solution to anything. As I understand things, horse racing is pretty regulated as it is. The trick is to enforce the rules, punish those who break them right along with the conspirators who look the other way. We need to stop carving out exceptions based on talent or social status. (Slapping a comic comes to mind, or getting away with spousal battery because the abuser handles a football well.)

    Horses are beasts of burden that love to run. Surely, it is better for a well-cared-for racing horse to run the track than it is to be consigned a dude ranch where tourists have no idea what they’re doing when they bounce in the saddle.

    • Thoroughbreds unsuited to the track because of a lack of speed become stepplechasers, jumping horses, show horses, or a very well-trained rider’s horse. They do not end up on some dude ranch. They don’t have the temperament or the physical body for that kind of work. Very breakable legs bred for speed, not rough terrain. And lots of nervous energy so they would never plod or put up with some idiot in their saddle. Plus, they aren’t cheap because of their other uses.

    • I agree about banning, John. The rotten apples are what need to be banned.

      For years, controversy dogged the Iditarod (sorry, couldn’t help it). Most of those dogs are well cared for and they truly LOVE to run.

      In Montana, there’s a business owner who rescues dogs. They earn their keep giving dog sled rides to tourists. When it’s time to hitch up, all 100 dogs bark their heads off, eager to be chosen.

  9. 1/2My daughter goes to school in Lexington, KY. Race horses are treated way better than gods. That palace on the UK campus is the large animal vet school. As a sport/gambling avenue it won’t be going away anytime soon.

    Better doping controls? Maybe, but there is a ton, several tons of dollars involved. Put money into fighting street drugs? Easy. Fight fixed (and that is what we are really talking about) horse racing? Not so much.

  10. 2/2
    I live in St. Louis. Big Mac land is still a section of the stadium. Mark McGwire, Sossa, and the rest all doped and got away with it. MLB is still much more concerned with pot smoking than PEDs.

    I was a big Lance Armstrong fan as well. Turns out he was just a much better cheater than the rest.

  11. It is an intensely interesting subject, the machinations and abuse surrounding our four legged equine fellow inhabitants. The roots run deep.

    The incredible beauty of these creatures in full stride is the attraction. In fact I just suggested to mi esposa “Let’s go to Prairie Meadows and watch the nags some night.”

    One of the greatest exponents of horse racing frauds was Tony Ciulla, an associate of the Whitey Bulger crew and they made millions. Although his modus operandi trended toward jockey bribery I have no doubt that had the opportunity presented itself he would not have blanched at druggery. A good article about Fat Tony is found in the New York Sun entitled “The Greatest Fixer Of Them All” by Stuart Marques from January 17, 2005.

    But it doesn’t stop there where the thoroughbreds are concerned. One thread concerned the mob dominated wire services that operated and such varied characters as Bugsy Siegel and the Annenbergs were involved.
    And you thought the Annenbergs were nice, civic minded people who published newspapers.

    And it doesn’t stop there, either.

    There are people who are horse killers in the pursuit of big payouts for show horses, and one of the greater mysteries is the still unsolved disappearance and presumably murder of Helen Brach, Chicago heiress to the Brach’s candy fortune in the midst of a horse killing scandal. It is said she was about to expose one of the practitioners of the art..

    And no. I don’t have netflix and didn’t see the show about Tommy Burns. My thinking is they barely scratched the surface.

  12. Drugs are really only the tip of the iceberg in horse racing abuse. Horses start racing at 2 years of age, which means they are under saddle and training when they are barely out of their first year. That’s like training a 7 year old human for running marathons while carrying a 20 lb pack. The worse the young horses perform, the more cheap races they’re entered into in hopes of recouping the money from the breeding/raising/training before they’re discarded. Only the cream of the crop are brought along slowly so they can win as 3 and 4 year olds where the big prize money is available. I’m not against horse racing, but I would be in favor of restructuring the sport from the ground up.

  13. I was just doing a Google search on a story I remembered about the Mafia Don who owned the book and magazine distributor for drug stores and airports and how all those twirling book racks were stocked with massmarket science fiction paperbacks because that Don LOVED science fiction. It both improved science fiction’s visibility and the authors’ pocketbooks. (The story was from a Golden Age of Science Fiction author whose name I don’t honestly recall so it has to remain anonymous. He was really, really sad about his lost revenue. It’s never been better.)

    If anyone here knows the Mafia guy’s name and his business’ name, I’d appreciate them. Heck, make it a blog article here. I’m happy to give someone a blog idea.

    I found out absolutely nothing on the subject. Apparently, the Dons who were into newspapers and juke boxes were much more exciting. Anyway, I did find this link on today’s subject. A Mafia boss who gained control over the “Daily Racing Form” for horse racing as well as other business publications for racing establishments. Nothing was said of any involvement in drugging horses or even dealing with horses except as a gambler.

    In another search, I came up with lots of interesting things that totally didn’t help my search, but I did find links about how the Mafia controlled comic book distribution and took over the small distributors who sold Marvel Comic through the typical violent Mafia tactics and Stan Lee did an insulting up-yours with some Mafia, now named Maggia, characters. He would have totally named them “Mafia,” if he could, but saner heads at Marvel prevailed. Also in this search I learned about Mafia guys as romance heroes for specialized e-book publishers. I will not have some of these things on my browser history, I have some respect for myself as a former romance writer as well, my heroes were decent people. Also, I have way too many search terms in my browser history that include “Mafia.” If you aren’t afraid of the stigma, feel free to use the search terms “book distributors Mafia science fiction”. Also, more Killzone topics! You are welcome.

  14. I know I’m coming in late, but I had to say this. Did you know that horses are not fully mature until they are 5 to 7 years old? Horses used for racing are still growing. They are children. That 3 year old horse you mentioned was maybe a teenager. Most retire around 5 years old. Their natural lifespan can reach over 25 years. We know what competing at a young age does to humans. It can ruin horses, too.

    I follow Melanie Bowles, owner of Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary. Reading her Facebook posts can be an education on what people do to horses. Ask her about horse racing if you really want to know what it does to horses – then stand back. She’s very passionate about these noble animals. She doesn’t go into it in detail on the Proud Horse website, but you can see her work with abused horses here:

  15. I researched horse doping last year for a book and learned so much. I was so sad about the 2021 Derby and disappointed in Bob Baffert. With money and gambling in the mix, horse racing is here to stay. I started riding when I was ten and would still be riding if I could take one of those steroid shots Steve mentioned. 🙂 My daughter and grands in Florida ride almost every day.

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