Plea deal for 1 of 2 defendants in horse doping scandal includes $25 million restitution

Two defendants indicted in a massive racehorse doping scandal in New York have have pled guilty.

Thoroughbred trainer Jorge Navarro and the head of a New York veterinary clinic, Kristian Rhein, were among more than two dozen people charged in a widespread scheme that prosecutors have alleged endangered horses, cheated bettors at tracks across the country and upended thoroughbred racing.

The scheme, which allegedly began in 2017, was designed to deceive regulators and horse racing officials regarding the use of performance-enhancing drugs, prosecutors said, after the indictment was filed in the Southern District of New York in March 2020.

The plot allegedly was orchestrated by veterinarian Louis Grasso, who “manufactured, purchased, sold, shipped, delivered, received and administered at least thousands of units of PEDs issues by pharmacies pursuant to invalid prescriptions provided by veterinarians participating in the scheme,” according to court documents. At least one horse died as a result.

PHOTO:Country House ridden by jockey Flavien Prat, War of Will ridden by jockey Tyler Gaffalione, Maximum Security ridden by jockey Luis Saez and Code of Honor ridden by jockey John Velazquez during the Kentucky Derby, May 4, 2019 in Louisville, Ky.

Navarro and Rhein pleaded guilty to their roles in the distribution of adulterated and misbranded drugs. They will be sentenced in December.

Navarro has agreed to pay more than $25 million in restitution, reflecting winnings obtained through his fraudulent doping scheme, and Rhein has agreed to pay restitution of more than $700,000 in connection with fraud committed through a false billing practice.

“Kristian Rhein and Jorge Navarro represent the supply side and the customer side of the market in performance enhancing substances that have corrupted much of the horse racing industry,” said U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss. “As he admitted today, Navarro, a licensed trainer and the purported ‘winner’ of major races across the world, was in fact a reckless fraudster whose veneer of success relied on the systematic abuse of the animals under his control.”

Rhein also “flouted his oath as a veterinarian” to profit through the sale and administration of unregulated substances used by trainers engaged in fraud and animal abuse, prosecutors said.

PHOTO: Maximum Security is washed in the barn area after morning workouts in preparation for the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, May 2, 2019, in Louisville, Ky.

Navarro operated his doping scheme covertly, importing misbranded “clenbuterol” that he both used and distributed to others, avoiding explicit discussion of performance-enhancing drugs during telephone calls and worked with others to coordinate the administration of PEDs at times that racing officials would not detect such cheating, according to the indictment.

Among the horses that Navarro trained and doped was XY Jet, a thoroughbred that won the 2019 Golden Shaheen race in Dubai. Navarro’s preferred PEDs included various “blood building” drugs, which, when administered before intense physical exertion, can lead to cardiac issues or death, the indictment said.

Navarro also assisted in doping Maximum Security, briefly the winner of the 2019 Kentucky Derby before being disqualified. On June 5, 2019, New Jersey racing regulators tested Maximum Security for performance enhancing drugs a short time after the horse had received a shot of SGF-1000, one of the misbranded or adulterated drugs, according to prosecutors.

In an intercepted call following that test, Rhein said, “[t]hey don’t even have a test for [SGF-1000],” according to court documents. “… There’s no test for it in America.”

Jason Kreiss, an attorney for Navarro, said in an emailed statement to ABC News that he “has accepted responsibility for his actions and looks forward to moving on with his life.” A lawyer for Rhein didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

A former sales representative for a Kentucky company that marketed SGF-1000 pleaded guilty last month to drug adulteration and misbranding of drugs charges related to the scheme.

SGF-1000 was not approved, was mislabeled and distributed without a valid prescription, assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Mortazavi said in a plea hearing for Michael Kegley.

Federal investigators intercepted calls during which Kegley acknowledged he did not know the precise contents of SGF-1000, according to the indictment. Kegley also was overheard explaining that trainers could be charged with felonies in the U.S. for doping horses.

Kegley conspired with trainers, veterinarians and others to make misbranded drugs, secretly administer them to racehorses and cheat bettors in the $100 billion global racehorse industry, prosecutors said.

When asked by a judge whether he knew that trainers intended to use the drugs on thoroughbred racehorses last month, Kegley replied, “Yes, your honor.”

Kegley has agreed to forfeit more than $3 million and faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison.

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