01/16/2015 12:53PM

KHRC report: No substance to PETA's claims against Asmussen

Barbara D. Livingston
A report from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission concluded that PETA's claims against trainer Steve Asmussen had no substance.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – For Steve Asmussen, it would be hard to imagine a more satisfying result to an investigation into allegations that horses in his care were mistreated than the report issued Thursday by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

The report, which included interviews with dozens of racetrack workers, veterinarians, and racing experts, not only took to task the organization that made the accusations, but it came to the conclusion that, contrary to the allegations by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Asmussen’s horses were “well cared for.” That assertion included the barn’s treatment of Nehro, the horse who was euthanized in May 2013 after an acute episode of colic. Nehro played a starring role in a video PETA produced alleging mistreatment, creating a highly sympathetic rallying point for those who backed PETA’s assertions.

In painstaking detail, the commission report describes the various treatments the Asmussen barn used to deal with Nehro’s stubborn foot issues, which the report called “neither unusual nor unmanageable,” citing the conclusions of a handful of independent veterinary experts.

Furthermore, the report concluded that “Nehro’s feet were being properly cared for and managed,” in direct contradiction to PETA’s claims, which relied on the observations and opinions of a stable worker, Kerin B. Rosen, who was working on behalf of PETA in the Asmussen barn, and a veterinarian, Holly Cheever, who, according to PETA, reviewed materials provided by Rosen from footage she secretly shot with her cellphone camera while working in the barn for four months in 2013.

“PETA alleged that Nehro was lame and was suffering ‘severe pain,’ ” the report states. “However, none of the information supplied by PETA corroborates this claim. The video footage shows Nehro standing quietly in a stall or in the shed row, bearing weight evenly on all four feet and demonstrating no behavioral signs of fear, distress, or pain. ... Rosen herself indicated that on the occasions when she walked Nehro, she noted nothing unusual about his gait, demeanor, or anything else that would make Nehro stand out from any other horses she walked.”

The report refutes much of the evidence PETA had for its allegations about the mistreatment of Nehro’s feet, including the now-infamous assertion that Nehro was lame and suffering because a veterinarian is seen in the video saying that the horse “has no pulse” in his left front leg. In fact, being able to manually detect a pulse in a horse’s foot is a sign of inflammation, not the other way around.

However, the report does raise questions about what led to Nehro’s euthanasia. According to the report, Nehro began exhibiting acute signs of physical distress on May 4, 2013, at Churchill Downs just after receiving his morning feed at 3:30. Ken Reed, a veterinarian, was called to the barn and immediately began treating the horse with fluids and sedatives, under the belief that the horse was colicking. Nehro did not respond to the treatments, was loaded onto a van for a 90-minute ride to Rood & Riddle Equine Clinic just outside of Lexington, but was so violent and unresponsive that the horse was put down on the van just outside Churchill’s stable gate.

“During their interviews more than one year after Nehro’s death, [assistant trainer Scott] Blasi, Asmussen, and Dr. Reed were all visibly upset revisiting the events and still struggling to understand what happened,” the report states. “They all indicated they had never seen a horse react to colic the way Nehro did. The evidence establishes that Asmussen, Dr. Reed, and Blasi provided ethical and appropriate care to a very sick horse.”

A private necropsy commissioned by Nehro’s owner, Zayat Stables, indicated that the horse had acute inflammation of the colon and kidney lesions, which were likely brought on by colitis and bacteria in the horse’s blood, which is often called “blood poisoning.” While the necropsy supports a diagnosis of acute colic, the horse also did not have torsion of the intestine, a common condition in acute colic cases.

KHRC officials reviewed the necropsy report during their investigation. Several officials involved in the investigation, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, said that while the necropsy report was satisfactory, it would have been ideal for additional toxicology tests to have been done on the horse’s tissues, since PETA had an undercover employee working in the barn and the death would become an object of investigation one year later.

“When the horse went to necropsy, there was no understanding that an undercover investigation was under way,” one of the officials said. “By the time we got this, there were no tissues left to test.”

While the report vindicated Asmussen and his staff, it was highly critical of PETA and its tactics, containing numerous instances in which PETA misrepresented facts or omitted recorded footage that would have contradicted its assertions. In one of the more egregious instances, PETA edited out a comment from Blasi saying that he would not run a horse, the 2-year-old Teardrop, if the horse was not sound. In another, PETA overdubbed footage of Blasi talking on the phone with a conversation from a separate recording.

Moreover, the commission said that PETA did not comply with a subpoena to turn over all of the material it claimed to have in the case – more than seven hours of video and a “258-page report.” The material it did provide, 30 minutes of video, was “extensively edited, and audio has been overdubbed,” the report said, with “conversations provided out of context and contrary to the substance of the conversation as a whole.”

PETA supporters are not likely to accept the KHRC report – comments on news stories from PETA supporters are already claiming that Asmussen and his team paid off the KHRC.

But the report, in one sense, does provide some validation for PETA’s view that horses are overmedicated on racing’s backstretches. Nehro, for instance, was administered five painkillers in the month prior to his death, the report states, which is not a particularly aggressive treatment regimen. However, in PETA’s view, the administration of even a single painkiller is tantamount to abuse.

In addition, one of PETA’s specific accusations against Asmussen was that 15 horses he trained at Churchill were “maintained in poor physical condition and forced to run at Churchill Downs while in these unfit conditions.” The KHRC said a review of the horses’ workouts and races at Churchill, along with the fact that none failed state veterinary exams, could not come close to substantiating that assertion.

But here’s where PETA and its supporters can still claim victory: All 15 horses ran on Lasix, which PETA considers a performance-enhancing drug used to treat a condition, bleeding in the lungs, that is symptomatic of a horse in ill health.