Updated on 11/30/2015 10:46AM

New York clears Asmussen of major allegations, fines him

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Steve Asmussen

The New York State Gaming Commission on Monday dismissed allegations of widespread animal abuse against leading trainer Steve Asmussen that had been lodged by an animal-rights group nearly two years ago but fined him $10,000 for seemingly minor transgressions involving the use of a feed supplement.

The commission, in a 176-page report released 20 months after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals initially made its allegations, said that four of the 14 allegations made by PETA were sustained – three were based on the administration of powdered thyroxine, a synthetic hormone, and one was related to a paperwork violation by a vet attached to the stable. The other 10, which the report called “more serious,” including widespread drug abuse and cruelty to animals, were unfounded, the commission said.

The report is likely to close an ugly chapter for Asmussen, who has won more than 7,000 races, second in North American racing history, but also has had a number of medication violations in his 20-year career. After PETA released a video describing its allegations in March 2014, Asmussen’s name was taken off the Hall of Fame ballot; a leading member of the racing industry -- then chairman of the Jockey Club, Ogden Mills Phipps -- asked him to withhold a horse from entering the Kentucky Derby; he fired his top assistant, Soctt Blasi (only to rehire him months later); and he was grilled on national television about the allegations by Bob Costas.

Clark Brewster, Asmussen’s attorney, said the report “exonerated” his client.

“When you read through the entire 176 pages, the accusations by PETA are totally laid to rest,” he said. “There was no abuse, there was no cruelty, there was nothing to justify the slanderous attacks made by PETA that were designed to draw attention to their organization at Steve’s expense.”

The accusations PETA had made against Asmussen and his stable staff included charges that a jockey employed by Asmussen had used an illegal shocking device; that his stable “trained and raced horses through injuries, exhaustion, and pain;” that his staff “subjected horses to performance-enhancing and pain-masking drugs;” and that the stable “repeatedly violated labor laws.” The commission said that after studying seven hours of video provided by PETA, conducting dozens of interviews, and reviewing thousands of written records, it could find no evidence for those allegations.

The New York State Gaming Commission is the second regulatory body to conduct an investigation into the PETA accusations. Earlier this year, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission released a report exonerating Asmussen and taking issue with PETA’s tactics and the substance of its abuse allegations, which the report said “had neither a factual or scientific basis.”

In March 2014, just after The New York Times wrote an article outlining PETA’s accusations, PETA posted a 9 1/2-minute video on the Internet purporting to show evidence of abuse in Asmussen’s stable. The video was edited from material shot by an Asmussen employee who worked in the stable for four months in 2013 at both Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., and Saratoga in upstate New York. The employee was secretly working in the barn on behalf of PETA to collect recordings.

While the commission said the most salacious allegations against Asmussen and his stable were without merit, the commission added that, based on a review of veterinary records and interviews with veterinary staff, it had determined that many of Asmussen’s horses were given regular doses of a thyroxine powder in their feed “until the day before racing,” regardless of specific tests indicative of thyroid deficiencies in each horse, according to the report. That led to violations of New York rules that prohibit the use of any hormone within 48 hours of a race.

Those violations, which occurred in dozens of horses, according to the report, formed the basis for the $10,000 fine, the commission said. In addition, the commission said it has drafted regulations that would clarify restrictions on the use of substances like thyroxine powder, which exist in something of a netherworld between regulated and nonregulated substances in most racing jurisdictions and in most barns.

The new regulations would state that no “drug” may be given to a horse except “as an actual medical therapy,” and that all “metabolism-modifying drugs will be tightly controlled,” according to the commission. In addition, veterinarians would be allowed to renew prescriptions “based on only their medical judgment,” and trainers would have to log any medications dispensed to their horses. Also, the commission said it would prohibit “any substance that abnormally affects a horse,” even if that language exists in some form already in nearly all racing jurisdictions.

Brewster said the report makes it clear that Asmussen’s stable staff was only following the direction of veterinarians when adding the thyroxine supplement to horses’ feed. Though he said he would have to talk with Asmussen on whether to appeal the fine, he said Asmussen was cooperative and “transparent” in describing his use of the supplement.

“If New York is taking the position that it has to be stopped at 48 hours, so be it,” Brewster said.

While acknowledging that PETA’s most bombastic and damaging claims “were largely unfounded,” Robert Williams, the commission’s executive director, thanked PETA for bringing the thyroxine violations to its attention. “We recognize PETA for playing a role in bringing about changes necessary to make Thoroughbred racing safer and fairer for all,” Williams said.

Kathy Guillermo, a PETA senior vice president who compared the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to the Syrian government after it exonerated Asmussen, said in a statement: “We applaud this progress and hope it will mean greatly improved protection for Thoroughbreds.” When asked whether she stood by the allegations of animal abuse made by PETA, Guillermo responded: “We stand by what we documented, but we are pleased with the outcome and happy that the [New York gambling commission] conducted a real investigation, unlike the sham that passed for one in Kentucky.”

Christopher Dragone, director of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, said Asmussen will be eligible for the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot. Asmussen's name was removed from eligibility for the 2015 ballot after Hall of Fame officials cited the investigations into PETA's accusations in Kentucky and New York.

"He was accused of some pretty serious animal-abuse accusations, and he seems to be pretty much fully exonerated, according to what I've read so far of the New York report, along with Kentucky," Dragone said. "We take animal-abuse charges very seriously here."