As his doping case goes to trial, a veterinarian says it's horse racing that's corrupt
The Washington Post January 19, 2022
On Oct. 27, 2019, Seth Fishman, a veterinarian, was returning from a weeks-long junket in the United Arab Emirates when he was greeted at Miami International Airport by armed federal agents.
The agents pulled Fishman into a side room, where he explained his business in Dubai: As the chief research officer for the kingdom's camels, he said, his responsibilities included managing breeding and fending off the spread of "zoonotic diseases" and African sleeping sickness. And indeed, after agents across town seized hundreds of vials from Fishman's storage unit, a lawyer who said he represented Dubai's "Presidential Camel Department" sprung to action, arguing in U.S. court that the substances were tonics urgently needed while the beasts were in heat.
But the American authorities, who had been eavesdropping on Fishman's calls since that February, saw the drugs, as well as those seized in other raids, as yet more evidence of what they asserted was the vet's real stock-in-trade: illegally doping racehorses in the United States and overseas. Fishman left the airport in handcuffs.
Fishman had been accused of horse-doping before, but he always had avoided punishment, including by cooperating with investigators. He once helped the feds build a case against his CEO boss, who Fishman claimed had urged him to create a pill that would erase the memory of another potential witness.
He tried this time, too, meeting with agents after his arrest and counseling them on how they could, as he put it, "create a different mousetrap" to help clean up horse racing, a sport he agreed was rife with cheating and animal abuse. Fishman perhaps even saw a business opportunity in his arrest; he applied for a patent on a medical tracking device and other inventions he says can save the sport.
But Fishman suggested that the feds had a more traditional means in mind: wiring the veterinarian for sound to bring down his alleged horse-doping cronies. "To make them happy I would have had to violate two of the Ten Commandments," Fishman said in an interview with The Washington Post, referring to lying and bearing false witness: "Just say for biblical reasons I couldn't do it."
And so in March 2020, federal prosecutors for the U.S. District Court in Manhattan unsealed indictments against Fishman and more than two dozen others in the racing industry, including prominent trainers, accusing them of concocting and administering performance-enhancing drugs designed to evade regulators.
An indictment described Fishman as running a boutique doping operation since at least 2014 in which three subordinates, who were also charged, manufactured the drugs to his specifications and then helped distribute them. Among his alleged clients: Jorge Navarro, a top trainer whose horses earned roughly $35 million over the course of a decade. Prosecutors attributed that success to a ruthless cheating regimen they referred to as the "Navarro Doping Program."
After Navarro's horse X Y Jet won $1.5 million in a Dubai race, Fishman congratulated him via text message, court records show, to which Navarro responded: "Thank u boss u are a big part of it." X Y Jet dropped dead of an apparent heart attack the following year.
Other court filings referred to a powerful painkiller known as "Fishman Pain Shot." "Don't kid yourself: If you're giving something to a horse to make it better and you're not supposed to do that . . . that's doping," Fishman told a prospective client about his products in a wiretapped call, according to the indictment. "You know, whether it's testable, that's a different story."
The indictments generated national headlines. That made them a powerful political tool, just as some of the wealthiest people in the sport had envisioned when they hired private investigators to drum up criminal leads for federal agents to follow. Those power brokers were then able to secure congressional support for federal regulatory reform they had struggled to sell for years.
In the two years since, 10 of the defendants have pleaded guilty or had their prosecution deferred. Among them is Navarro, who was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to forfeit more than $25 million. But on Wednesday, the first holdouts against the government will go on trial: Fishman and his alleged distributor, Lisa Giannelli. Fishman is charged with two counts of conspiring to misbrand drugs. Each count carries a potential five-year prison sentence.
For the industry, the trial's stakes are also high. The state of racing has only gotten more chaotic since the indictments, with 2021's Kentucky Derby winner, the Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit, testing positive for a banned substance and later dying during a workout.
Meanwhile, the legislative reform partly spurred by the indictments appears to have stalled, with thoroughbred racing's newly formed governing authority failing to reach an expected agreement with the United States Anti-Doping Agency to provide enforcement.
Criminal defendants rarely speak to the press until after trial. But Fishman, 50, a part-time Bangkok fight promoter who vacillates between optimism that he could save the industry and extreme fatalism, doesn't have much use for convention. Against the advice of his attorney, he spent several hours on the phone with a Post reporter as his trial approached to refute prosecutors' portrayal of him as a ruthless horse doper obsessed with winning races.
He's an animal lover, he insisted. He maintained that his drugs are solely therapeutics and that the charges against him are trumped up, using obscure statutes criminalizing the administration of benign drugs needed to ease the suffering of animals used in a punishing sport.
Fishman claimed that the real motive of those seeking regulatory reform was to make the sport more palatable for bettors by eradicating any foreign substances - at the expense of the animals. "I don't think the veterinary world should have to answer to a gambling product that seems to be getting more and more corrupt, not less corrupt," Fishman said. "The animals' needs need to be put before the gamblers' needs."
And Fishman said that he and other defendants had been handpicked for sacrifice by racing's elite, who had spared others with more clout, to create an illusion of reform that can distract from more entrenched corruption.
Fishman said he has Stage 3 thyroid cancer and no children, which is why he feels comfortable rolling the dice at trial, declaring: "I'm going to take one for the team of veterinarians."
Always a caretaker for animals but not much of a studier, Fishman, who grew up in suburban New York, found that his only option for a veterinary degree was on the island of St. Kitts. Later court testimony would reference Fishman's cocaine habit around this time, which he downplayed in an interview.
"I was living in an island where it was legal," Fishman said. "Well, I shouldn't say legal, [but] if you want to get cocaine, you buy it from a police officer."
Upon graduation, Fishman headed to Florida, where he initially sought to rehabilitate racehorses. He connected with David H. Brooks, a body armor tycoon whose many expensive passions included harness racing, the niche version of the sport that uses Standardbred horses instead of thoroughbreds.
Brooks hired Fishman to care for his horses, and soon the vet got his first experience navigating a high-profile federal prosecution. Brooks was indicted in 2007 for fraud. Fishman flipped on his boss, court records show, telling authorities that Brooks urged him to use his pharmaceutical know-how to create a pill that would erase the memory of a potential key witness against him.
The Brooks investigation showed that the FBI had long had an interest in Fishman's treatment of racehorses. Agents in Miami had heard about him from a New Jersey state trooper who had investigated doping at the Meadowlands, a harness racing track there. According to an FBI report, Fishman admitted that he "sold drugs to David Brooks to be used in shots for 'prerace' doping."
Fishman now claims the agents misconstrued his words. "You don't hear me talking about drugs to enhance performance or anything," Fishman said. "I talk about medicine of therapeutic value."
Fishman ended up not testifying against Brooks, who was convicted anyway and died in prison. Brice Cote, the trooper who initiated the first investigation against him, retired from the state police and got a job leading security for Meadowlands. And that, Fishman claims, is how his current trouble began.
For years, horse racing has faced a growing existential crisis, threatened by a spate of high-profile horse deaths, dwindling receipts and growing disenchantment with the integrity of the sport. The 2020 indictments and congressional interest they triggered appeared to signal that the government had taken a spontaneous interest in cleaning up the sport.
But court filings show that federal prosecutors are prickly about the origins of the investigation.
Starting around 2015, the Jockey Club, the powerful thoroughbred group whose members include descendants of famous horsemen and the Sheikh of Dubai, hired a Miami-based private intelligence company called 5 Stones to target cheaters in the sport. The intelligence outfit is run by a former DEA agent and has millions of dollars in federal contracts, and Jockey Club leaders have acknowledged the goal from the beginning was to bring about indictments.
And though the private investigators started in thoroughbred racing, they found more business in harness racing. Several of those in harness racing who were eventually indicted were among targets of Meadowlands track owner Jeff Gural, who helped fund the 5 Stones doping probe, and Cote, his track detective.
Since The Post first reported on 5 Stones' involvement last year, several defendants have argued in court that the federal probe was guided by the industry's private investigators, records show. Lawyers have argued that 5 Stones investigators provided the FBI with confidential informants, joined agents for interrogations, and - in one alleged instance - threatened a potential witness to cooperate or face the revocation of their state lcense.
Fishman accused Gural of "selectively eliminating the competition" at his track. "His idea of a level playing field is that you level the field with all the people you don't want and then you just keep the people on the field that you want."
Joseph Faraldo, chairman of the U.S. Trotting Association, harness racing's version of the Jockey Club - and a longtime nemesis of Gural - said the close association between hired investigators and the government has meant that in practice, "Gural and minions will dictate who gets prosecuted."
In an interview, Gural disputed that claim, maintaining that he has insisted on being kept in the dark about who 5 Stones or federal investigators target. But he doesn't hide his pleasure at watching the indictments wreck former rivals. Gural laughed at Fishman's chances at trial, remarking of federal prosecutors: "I was told they lose about 3 percent of the time."
Gural also said he plans to attend the upcoming sentencing for Chris Oakes, a harness-racing trainer he has feuded with for years. "I'm probably going to go to the courthouse to hear that," Gural said, "because it's an individual I particularly dislike."
Neither Cote nor 5 Stones chief David Tinsley returned messages seeking comment. A representative for the Jockey Club declined to comment. Federal prosecutors have said in filings that though agents met with members of the Jockey Club "on occasion," the federal government "made investigative and charging decisions entirely independently of any nongovernmental source of information."
In filings in Fishman's case, his attorney previously argued that industry influence not only got him indicted but also tainted his shot at a fair trial. Fishman moved to have U.S. District Court Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil, who oversees his and other horse-doping cases, recuse herself for past links to the racing establishment, including being a former member of a breeders association and having a former law partner who was in the Jockey Club. Vyskocil denied the motion as "patently frivolous," stating that her "impartiality is not in question."
Fishman's other legal arguments have fared similarly. The indictments rely on Depression-era statutes that address "misbranded" products, including substances that aren't otherwise illegal or even banned from racing. Fishman has pointed out in a wiretapped conversation cited by prosecutors, the impressive drug Navarro said Fishman gave him was "something with amino acid." Fishman's lawyer described that as an "organic substance," prescribed to treat Navarro's horse after it "clamped up."
In an interview, Fishman sought to distance himself from Navarro, saying he interacted with the trainer "for a total of less than one hour" and that he "was probably one of the least involved vets in the Navarro - whatever they want to call it - conspiracy."
Another wiretapped conversation quoted Fishman referring to a "mimetic" for Epogen, a banned performance-enhancer. In an interview, Fishman suggested he was looking after the welfare of the horse. "If I'm providing a safe alternative to what's in use - and will be used unless I provide a safe alternative - I believe I'm practicing sound medicine ... And the fact that they may or may not be able to test for it as easily, I don't know how that makes it a crime."
In decisions rejecting various of Fishman's motions, Vyskocil referred to such arguments as "unpersuasive" and stated: "The evidence of Fishman's criminal activity is extensive."
Fishman's depiction of himself as a sort of racetrack St. Francis of Assisi is strikingly at odds with the government's version. To prosecutors, he is a chemical tinkerer who has preyed on horse racing's ineffectual patchwork regulatory system.
That includes dodging a state investigation in Delaware after his drugs were alleged to have killed a racehorse, which Fishman denies. And though Fishman may pride himself on taking one for the team of veterinarians, court records show that a fellow vet in Kentucky was among the confidential sources who led to Fishman's indictment.
In December, as the trial approached, prosecutors attempted to have Fishman's bail revoked after they found drugs he had manufactured since his arrest, including batches of a substance called "HP Bleeder" that advertised that it had no "testable" ingredients. Fishman denied doing anything illegal and was ultimately allowed to remain free after agreeing no longer to manufacture any drugs and substances besides those he uses to treat his own health conditions.
Between the negative momentum in court and the feds clamping down on his revenue, Fishman at times swings into feelings of doom about his odds at trial.
In an interview Friday, the day before his flight from his home in Florida to New York to face trial, Fishman said he stopped corresponding with people he knows because he doesn't want to explain his predicament. "My number got punched," Fishman said. "So it's either real corrupt people trying to make an example out of me or God really hates me that much that it's, 'Hey, it's my lottery ticket to die.' "