04/28/2014 2:38PM

Beyer: Asmussen forced to shoulder industry's problem


In a sport amply populated by rogues and cheaters, trainer Steve Asmussen has become Public Enemy No. 1. He has shamed Thoroughbred racing so badly that the chairman of The Jockey Club, Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, declared that there is “a dark cloud hovering over our sport” and that Asmussen ought to stay away from the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks.

Asmussen is expected to ignore that suggestion by saddling his brilliant filly Untapable for Friday’s Oaks and his colt Tapiture for Saturday’s Derby. Phipps and other leaders of the industry surely shudder at the thought of Asmussen hoisting a trophy as a nationwide television audience watches.

The controversy involving Asmussen, which has been the talk of the racing world for the past month, stems from recordings made secretly at his barn by an “undercover agent” for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. They were edited to form a 9 1/2-minute video and reported by The New York Times as part of its campaign against cruelty to racehorses.

The charges were a familiar PETA theme: Unscrupulous trainers regularly campaign infirm animals by pumping them full of painkillers and performance-enhancing drugs. Some in the racing community feel those reports distorted facts to put Thoroughbred racing in the worst possible light. But all PETA had to do to blacken the sport in this case was to put a hidden microphone in the vicinity of Scott Blasi, Asmussen’s top assistant.

In the video, Blasi profanely talks about the indiscriminate use of medications in the Asmussen operation. He talks about jockeys’ use of “buzzers” to give horses an electrical shock and make them run faster. He talks about the pain-deadening procedure known as shock-wave therapy.

Blasi’s coarseness had a visceral effect on almost everyone who watched the video; leaders of the sport responded with condemnations and calls for reform.

Although Asmussen never appeared on camera and fired Blasi after the video became public, everyone understood that this was Asmussen’s operation. Asmussen is the second-winningest trainer of all time. He trained champions Curlin and Rachel Alexandra. His name was on the ballot in this year’s voting for the Racing Hall of Fame, and he was considered a shoo-in. But the video thoroughly tarnished his reputation. A few days after it became public, the Hall of Fame announced that it had “tabled” Asmussen’s nomination “in the interests of the institution and the sport.”

Asmussen has numerous drug penalties on his record, the most serious a six-month suspension in 2006 for use of mepivacaine, a local anesthetic than can be used to block pain in an animal’s leg. The majority of his misdeeds have been garden-variety infractions, usually when a horse tests above the permitted threshold for a legal medication. His horses rarely display the kind of inexplicable, sudden improvement that raises suspicions of powerful illegal drugs.

He is not a popular figure in the sport; unlike media-savvy trainers such as Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher, Asmussen shuns the spotlight. But he is respected. Amid the current storm, trainer Rusty Arnold wrote a letter to the editor of Daily Racing Form and declared, “There is no better caretaker of horses than he is. Period.”

Neither Asmussen nor most members of his profession resemble PETA’s caricature of trainers as heartless and ruthless abusers of Thoroughbreds. Its video was an artful piece of propaganda, whose sensational aspects obscured the fact that there was no proof that Asmussen and Blasi were doing anything illegal to the horses in their care.

But when PETA declared matter-of-factly that Asmussen gave his horses “a steady diet of drug cocktails,” the organization hit upon the indefensible practice that the racing industry can’t dismiss as a lie or a distortion.

PETA cited Asmussen’s use of Thyrozine, a medication used to treat animals whose thyroid gland does not produce enough hormones. Asmussen’s horses were not tested for thyroid disorders, yet they all got the drug as a matter of routine. “It makes ’em feel good,” Blasi said in the video. (In fact, it speeds up their metabolism.)

In this respect, the use of Thyrozine is similar to the most common racetrack drug, Lasix. The diuretic was originally legalized to treat horses who bleed during physical exertion, but Asmussen gives it to every horse, presumably to boost the performance of the non-bleeders, too.

And so does almost every other trainer in the United States. Every horse in the Kentucky Derby field is a regular Lasix user. The Asmussen stable’s regular use of drugs – even when there is no medical need for them – is commonplace in the sport.

When seven horses in Baffert’s barn suffered sudden deaths over a two-year period, California officials investigated and found that no illegal substances were responsible. But all of Baffert’s horses had been routinely treated with a thyroid medication, Thyro-L. Baffert subsequently dropped this regimen.

When a New York task force investigated a wave of fatalities in races at Aqueduct in 2011-12, the breakdown of a horse named Coronado Heights attracted special attention, partly because Pletcher trained him. In the last 25 days of his life, Coronado Heights had received 24 injections – all of them legal – which Pletcher described as “standard practice” in his barn. The task force’s report said that all of these drugs might have masked signs of lameness that would have been a warning sign before Coronado Heights’s death.

It is wrong to characterize Asmussen as a bad apple. It is unfair to single him out for stigmatization. And it was thoroughly disingenuous for Phipps to say, “His presence and participation [in the Kentucky Oaks and Derby] would indicate that it’s just ‘business as usual’ in the Thoroughbred industry.”

Throughout the industry, the indiscriminate use of drugs is business as usual.

© The Washington Post

Leon More than 1 year ago
Thousands of cattle were killed today to supply beef for human consumption.
E More than 1 year ago
just emphasizes the desperate need for national drug rules and a central lab. too much has gone on for too long. the 'sport' needs people to be attracted to it, not turned off.
Jack Armstead More than 1 year ago
What is he supposed to do with Untapable, the 4/5 Favorite in the Oaks? Watch from an OTB? I agree with most humane people that horses are treated pretty well, however; someone here pointed out that Steve Asmussen is responsible for what goes on in his entire operation. This includes finding paperwork for illegal aliens to muck stalls and keep the horses in better accommodations than the Hispanics that he employs. I don't agree that the Blue Bloods like Dinny Phipps should be able to make suggestions about the sport unless they're willing to adhere to a higher standard, not the same or similar behavior they abhor from Asmussen. Someone pointed out that we should adopt the rules that the Brit's use in the U.K. If Dinny and the others agree to achieving those higher standards, then I say that they're entitled to shame Asmussen. Until that time, EVERYONE in the industry (including you ANDY) should just STFU and let this pass for now. Why do we want to mess up the most exciting day of racing by re-hashing this PETA contrived character assassination of not only Asmussen; but of all Horse racing in general. As far as Rachel goes, they did burn her out and she should have never been put on that roller coaster. She was burnt out because of the East Coast/West Coast conflict and was never as good as Zenyatta. Rachel is no longer an effective Mare and it is difficult to breed her. If they breed her again, her life is in danger. This is what is wrong with all the drugs in the sport. That should tell you more about Asmussen than anything. That's what I despise him for most... for ruining Rachel.
mike More than 1 year ago
Ditto regarding RA!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What do you mean about "ruining Rachel? He put her in difficult races but he never took her to California. Furthermore, what are the details of her foaling difficulties and how do they relate to her racing career? If she had remained in filly and mare races she would have had to eventually race Zenyatta. Unless she won, she would never have been voted Horse of the Year.
Randy Baker More than 1 year ago
For the good of the sport Asmussen should have stayed out of the Oaks/Derby this year.If he wins the Derby the sport can have matching black eyes.I know who Peta is rooting for.to get thier story back in the news
Gaye Goodwin More than 1 year ago
Well, well, Andrew; because everyone (almost) else does it, there is no NEED to punish the one who got caught? What a stupid, illogical position. There is no "artful propaganda" in the cruelty of continuing to train poor Nehro with his horrible foot problems. There are no "sensational aspects" to the poor filly being run four days later, in a STAKES race, after Blasi lamented that there "is always something wrong with these MFs". I am sorry if the FACTS are inconvenient for your "nothing to see here" argument, but you are most decidedly wrong to propose that Asmussen did nothing wrong. I agree with Dinny. And you are certainly part of the problem in trying to make excuses for very bad horse management !
mike More than 1 year ago
I've never liked him and when RA was in training and left Hal Wiggins barn,knew it wasn't the best for her. Look at the contrast between her third and fourth racing season. Can you say run into the ground? He's garbage,Phipps is correct indicating he shouldn't be in Kentucky this week.
Gaye Goodwin More than 1 year ago
Amen, Mike. I heartily agree: RA was ruined by Asmussen.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ridiculous! If he had managed her career the way Zenyatta's was managed they would have complained he was racing nobodies, dodging the boys, etc. She had a long successful career and as with other horses it took its toll but made a great name for her.
mike More than 1 year ago
Mr. Beyer, Asmussen isn't the one "dirty" trainer,but he's one of them. His attention is raised cause he's high profile. He isn't fit to train and SHOULD BE BANNED,PERIOD!!!
Pagani Zonda More than 1 year ago
Hey Andy, after reading this tripe you wrote, I am just curious to know if steve gave you a courtesy reach around last night. WHY you are defending him?
Pagani Zonda More than 1 year ago
*Are you....
Pagani Zonda More than 1 year ago
I have said this over and over. Follow the guidelines set out by the British Horseracing Authority, and you would start gaining more trust and respect from people. They enforce so many rules and regulations, and if you get caught....you WILL pay. Ask the godolphin trainer who was using Steroids on his horses. Certify was his filly who could have won the guineas and she was banned from racing for an extended period of time, along with the now disgraced trainer.
Pagani Zonda More than 1 year ago
You hit your horse more then 7 times the entire race, you get a riding ban, no race day meds, and strict disclosure of their vet records.
John Nicoletti More than 1 year ago
Excellent read, Mr.Beyer. As a former owner, I am familiar with most of the drugs mentioned in the article. We raced mainly in New Jersey, with an occasional trip to New York. To quote a trainer friend who raced in New York, "The parking lot looked like a pharmacy. How true was that statement, I cannot validate, but illegal drugs were available. It has been for a long time, and in my opinion, will continue.