weather icon Clear

Horse racing’s ‘juice man’ is gone, but shortcomings remain

The “juice man” is headed for “the Can.”

Jorge Navarro, a longtime Florida trainer who was one of the most brazen cheaters this game has ever seen, is scheduled to be sentenced Friday after pleading guilty to being part of a “widespread, corrupt scheme” to dope racehorses with designer drugs that were undetectable in post-race testing. He faces a maximum of five years in prison.

Under a deal with prosecutors, he agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to administer misbranded drugs to horses in exchange for a lesser sentence than he might have otherwise faced. He also agreed to make restitution of more than $25 million — though it’s not clear if he has the means to pay or where that money would go — as well as pay a $70,000 fine to the federal government and surrender his racing license.

Now comes the final act. U.S. District Judge Mary Kay Vyskoci could sentence Navarro to the maximum five years in prison or heed his attorneys’ arguments that he should get more than a year off that because he accepted full responsibility for his crime.

Navarro’s downfall does not come as a huge surprise. He brought attention to himself when a video posted on YouTube in 2019 showed an owner celebrating a victory at Monmouth Park in Navarro’s company, dancing and praising him loudly and repeatedly as the “juice man.” The trainer accepted the accolades and made no effort to shush his excited companion.

Far from being concerned about the exposure, Navarro embraced the moniker. Prosecutors said in a court filing urging the judge to mete out the maximum punishment that they found a pair of shoes in his possession emblazoned with the words “#JUICE MAN” across the front.

“The intensity of Navarro’s doping was matched by his apparent glee in this illicit conduct,” they wrote.

For its part, the defense produced a few character witnesses who said that Navarro was a caring horseman and also noted that the trainer faces “almost certain deportation” to his native of Panama after his jail term ends.

Navarro is the highest-profile defendant taken down so far of the 27 owners, trainers and veterinarians indicted in March 2020 after an undercover investigation, though some others also have pleaded guilty.

The biggest name in the case is Jason Servis, trainer of disqualified 2019 Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security and other high-profile thoroughbreds, who continues to fight the charges. His attorneys face an uphill battle, however, as Navarro implicated Servis in his guilty plea. Other defendants who accepted plea deals are expected to be cooperating witnesses as remaining cases go to trial.

While the removal of a bad apple from the sport is obviously a good thing, it’s important to remember that racing authorities never caught Navarro and his many co-defendants. If not for an undercover investigation initiated by officials of the Jockey Club and Meadowlands Racetrack in New Jersey, the “juice man” would very likely be dancing at clubhouse bars to this day.

A more robust testing regimen being developed as part of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act should help when it comes on line next year. But it’s also clear that racing labs need to step up their game to stop other cheaters from pumping their horses full of whatever substance they believe will give them an edge.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Brunker: Belmont winner can be found in bloodlines

This year’s Triple Crown has more closely resembled a revolving door than a series of horse races aimed at determining the best 3-year-old over a classic distance.