March 23rd, 2014

Reed: PETA reveals abuses in horse racing

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Billy Reed

Executive Editor


Reed: PETA reveals abuses in horse racing
Steve Assmussen is the center of PETA's 'sting' operation / photo by Annie M. Eberthart from bloodhorse.com

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

-- Edmund Burke

Mention Steve Asmussen and the wiseguys on the backstretch always would roll their eyes and shake their heads. They would tell you, privately, he wasn’t winning all those races, all over the country, strictly because he was a superior horseman. They would say it was because he was, to be kind, playing fast and loose with the rules.

Asmussen’s defenders would say this kind of gossip was just a matter of jealously. You know how it goes. A guy sticks his head above the pack and somebody is waiting to shoot him down. They would say the same thing about Rick Dutrow, another serial rules violator who almost won the Triple Crown with Big Brown in 2008.

So what to believe? Well, thanks to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), Asmussen now stands revealed. So does Scott Blasi, one of the assistants he employs in his nationwide stable. They are at the heart of a four-month “sting” operation in which a PETA investigator worked undercover as a hot walker in the Asmussen stable and secretly recorded countless damning conversations and comments.

The “star” of the show, for lack of a better term, is Blasi, whose profane tirades will jar viewers who aren’t familiar with life on the backstretch. At least Blasi can’t claim he was misquoted or taken out of context. It’s all there, on tape.

And so did thoroughbred racing’s worst nightmare become real.

When The New York Times published the results of the PETA investigation, alarm bells went off throughout the industry. The sport’s dark side was illuminated as never before.

In one segment of the PETA video, Blasi graphically discusses the chronic foot problems of Nehro, the Asmussen-trained colt who finished second in the 2011 Kentucky Derby and died of colic two years later. Among other things, Blasi says Super Glue was used to fill a hole in one of the horse’s hooves.

Nehro was owned by powerful owner Ahmed Zayat, who was shocked when he saw the PETA video. “I feel like I was duped,” said Zayat, who immediately scratched all his Asmussen-trained horses from races this weekend.

Laughably, Asmussen was on the ballot for election to the National Racing Hall of Fame when the PETA story broke. Acting with undue haste for an industry organization, the Hall of Fame removed Asmussen from consideration. If only it could be that easy for the rest of the industry.

This is hardly the first time that racing has been stained by a major scandal, but this one figures to be different because the evidence is so strong. Racing’s leaders will not be able to sweep this one under the rug. Their normal response — denial, stonewalling, blaming the messenger — will be neither adequate nor acceptable.

While it’s true that Asmussen and Blasi are the exception rather than the rule, it didn’t help that Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, a member of the Kentucky State Racing Commission, and jockey Gary Stevens were caught on tape laughing as they exchanged stories about the how jockeys sometimes use batteries to stimulate horses.

But here’s the simple truth: The industry has nobody to blame but itself. So many owners, trainers and veterinarians have dirtied their hands in order to win a race that nobody dares blow the whistle on anybody else.

Even the honest horsemen — and there are many of them — will not call out the cheaters. Oh, they all will gripe and point fingers among themselves. But when a reporter comes snooping around, they invariably close ranks and zipper up.

Never mind that the cheating rival in the barn next door is literally stealing money from you. On the backstretch, snitches are ostracized. To get along, you must go along. Nobody has the guts to stand up for doing the right thing.

It was like that in 1968, when Derby winner Dancer’s Image was disqualified because post-race tests detected a then-illegal medication in his system, and it’s still like that today. In the ensuing 46 years, racing has done little to weed out the crooks. It’s the ultimate “Good Ol’ Boys’ Club” where the dues are your integrity.

Groups like PETA put the industry on notice years ago. But in its arrogance and ignorance, racing did nothing except try to discredit PETA. Anybody trying to push for real reform — such as executive director John Ward has been doing with the Kentucky State Racing Commission — has a difficult time marshaling support.

But now it’s different. Racing’s response must be plausible, serious and effective. There is no more wiggle room, no way to spin the facts revealed in the PETA video. Now, finally, way too late, racing must get serious about policing itself. Congressional hearings surely loom.

Whatever happens, we now know the truth about Asmussen and Blasi. They are ruthless, cruel and cold-blooded serial cheaters who often treated horses more like used cars than living beings. How the industry deals with them will tell much about whether racing really cares about  its most vital entities — the horses and the people who bet on them.

 

 

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