01/08/2015 12:04PM

Crist: Asmussen's Hall ban still doesn't hold up


Last Tuesday, two Halls of Fame were in the news. Their approaches to the issue of determining candidates’ worthiness for enshrinement could not have been more different.

The Baseball Hall of Fame announced the election of four new members – Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz – each of whom met the requirement of being named on at least 75 percent of the ballots. Among those who missed the cut were Roger Clemens (37.5 percent) and Barry Bonds (36.8 percent).

The same day, racing’s Hall of Fame began its process for the class of 2015 with an instruction to its nominating committee (of which I am a member) that Steve Asmussen’s candidacy would be “tabled” for a second straight year and that voters could not select him.

No rational person can argue that Bonds and Clemens, on their achievements, are not automatic Hall inductees. The reason they have fallen far short of election is because of varying degrees of skepticism whether those achievements were accomplished with the help of performance-enhancing drugs during baseball’s steroid era.

Similarly, Asmussen is a no-brainer on the merits. He is the second-leading trainer in victories in American racing history, fourth in all-time earnings, and he trained Curlin and Rachel Alexandra to three Horse of the Year titles from 2008-10. No one has alleged that these achievements were achieved through any improper use of drugs.

The Hall’s executive committee, however, tabled Asmussen’s nomination last year when a sensationalistic article and secretly recorded video, publicized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and The New York Times, showed one of Asmussen’s assistants saying unsavory and insensitive things about the care and training of horses.

Many in the racing community severely overreacted to a video that was long on cuss words and short on substance. In addition to the Hall executive committee’s rash decision to remove Asmussen from the ballot, other racing officials suggested he be barred from attending the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, which he won with Untapable. Two states, New York and Kentucky, felt obliged to mollify PETA and The Times by opening inquiries into whether there had been any wrongdoing.

These “investigations” are still open, but nine months later, not a single charge has been filed. Asmussen is in good standing in every racing jurisdiction in the country, including the two that are investigating the video. The assistant, Scott Blasi, was briefly dismissed but then rehired last July. As Jay Privman reported in Daily Racing Form late last year, Asmussen’s horses made more than 1,300 starts in North America in 2014, and his lone violation was a $200 fine for a minor horseshoeing problem in one race at Fair Grounds.

The crucial difference between these two Halls of Fame is that one trusts its voters, and the other doesn’t. Baseball has never decreed that Bonds or Clemens are ineligible for its Hall or deprived its electorate of the opportunity to vote for them.

Racing should have done the same thing. If its voters are sufficiently troubled by the so-called allegations against Asmussen, flimsy as they are, they can choose not to vote for him – just as a majority of the baseball writers have chosen not to vote for Bonds and Clemens in each of their three years of eligibility.

Racing’s Hall officials painted themselves into a corner with the improper decision a year ago to remove Asmussen from the ballot. Having said that he could not be considered for enshrinement because of the PETA video, they now feel that they cannot rescind the ban until the investigations are formally resolved. That has its own internal logic but also compounds the original mistake.

What happens if we get to January 2016 and nothing has changed? What if one of those racing commissions, which have licensed and permitted Asmussen to run thousands of horses since the PETA video was released, has still not issued a report?

If that happens, the Hall’s executive committee can get it right on the third try – simply by saying that it is up to our voters, not our executive management committee, whether Asmussen or anyone else is worthy of enshrinement in racing’s Hall of Fame.