View From The Eighth Pole: Murray Rojas Trial Casts Dark Shadow Over Racing

by | 06.27.2017 | 10:53am

Horse racing lost 14 potential fans this past week in Pennsylvania. The 14 men and women are serving on the jury in the federal trial of Murray Rojas, the Penn National-based trainer charged on multiple counts of wire fraud, conspiracy and misbranding of drugs. When this case is over, I'm sure the racetrack is the last place they'll want to go.

During the trial's fifth day on Monday, jurors heard veterinarian Fernando Motta testify how, at the request of Rojas, he systematically provided illegal race-day treatment to dozens of horses in her stable with a variety of therapeutic drugs. Motta acknowledged Pennslvania's rule was clear that the only permitted drug on race day is furosemide.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Behe provided exhibits ranging from client order forms, treatment sheets, invoices and Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission veterinary report forms showing that Motta and former associates in Dr. Kevin Brophy's practice routinely backdated treatments and misled regulators.

Motta, Brophy, Dr. Christopher Korte and Dr. Renee Nodine previously pleaded guilty to violations of state law in exchange for their cooperation with the FBI and U.S. attorney's office. They have yet to be sentenced.

“She basically had a set recipe of medication she wanted to give on race day,” Motta said of Rojas.


During cross-examination by Rojas' defense attorney Robert Goldman, Motta admitted he earned hundreds of thousands of dollars illegally treating horses on the day of their race and that his income exceeded $200,000 annually at one point while working for Brophy. Motta went out on his own in May 2012 and continued to have Rojas as a client.

Internal posting sheets used within Brophy's practice and entered into the record showed multiple horses from different trainers getting similar illegal race day treatments as those given to Rojas horses. Goldman asked Motta if “most trainers, if not all” at Penn National were doing the same thing. Motta answered “yes.”

Goldman then asked the question that made my head spin: If everyone is cheating with race day medications, it's a level playing field, isn't it?

Again, Motta answered “yes.”

That seems to be one of the strategies for the defense: everyone was cheating.

Conversely, Goldman asked, shouldn't many of the drugs allegedly given on race day have been detected during testing of post-race samples?

Motta had an answer for that.

In the case of Robinul (glycopyrrolate), which allegedly was given on race day to numerous Rojas horses, Motta said he gave a smaller dose than usual and changed the route of administration from intramuscular to intravenous “to avoid detection.”

If that wasn't enough, veterinarians apparently had intelligence about the Pennsylvania Equine Toxicology and Research Laboratory (PETRL) that conducts drug testing on all Pennsylvania racetracks.

“Brophy would actually tell you what they test for and don't test for, correct?” asked Goldman.

“Yes,” said Motta.

Also testifying on Monday was Dr. Mary Robinson, who was named acting director of PETRL when former director Cornelius Uboh was fired for reasons unknown in April 2014. Robinson reviewed lab records provided to her by prosecutors in reference to 58 Rojas horses to see how many were tested (only winners and up to two other horses per race are tested) and compared treatment sheets with test results.

Robinson admitted the lab did not, at that time, have tests for a number of drug treatments allegedly given to horses on race day. She also said the lab was not testing for every drug, every day.

The lab was using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay kits for drug screening. To save money, Robinson assumed, the lab would mix urine samples from two horses and screen for various drugs. If something was “flagged” as positive, the individual samples would be retested. The mixing of samples, however, would dilute any prohibited substance in an individual sample.

The take-home message from all of this was delivered to me by a security guard at the Ronald Reagan Federal Building in Harrisburg when I arrived for Monday's proceedings and went through routine screening.

“Are you here for that horse racing trial?” he asked me.

When I told him I was, he said: “I was in there long enough to confirm my suspicion that horse racing is absolutely corrupt.”

Let's hope this trial, which will continue for several more days, is the beginning of the end of that corruption.

That's my view from the eighth pole.

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