There are scoundrels, cheats and rats in every sport.
Sometimes, they even become part of the folklore, romanticized for the win-at-all-cost desire to gain that one extra little edge. When a bat explodes to reveal a sweet corky center, we’re prone to a chuckle more frequently than outrage.
Horse racing wasn’t much different, but as of last Wednesday night, it is very different now.
When animal cruelty enters the equation, there no longer can be a wink and a nod, or limp response from those in charge.
The game-changer was a video released last week by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, using the New York Times as its outlet.
PETA targeted trainer Steve Asmussen and got more than its money’s worth from a female investigator hired by the Asmussen stable as a hot walker.
The mother lode of what racing apologists are calling typically massaged PETA propaganda includes secret video mostly of Asmussen’s assistant, Scott Blasi, profanely explaining the unsavory ways trainers get damaged horses to the races and get them to win purse money.
The 9 1⁄2 minutes of footage, distilled from seven hours of video taken over four months at Saratoga Race Course and Churchill Downs last year, reveals Asmussen’s operation to be one that, in PETA’s view, mistreats horses, patches them together to get them to the races and uses certain therapeutic drugs as a matter of routine for performance enhancement.
My own reaction when I watched it for the first time was that this is going to leave a mark. If you filter out the clownishly vulgar language by Blasi, you see practices that reduce these animals to a commodity that are put at risk of injury and are discarded when their ability to make money runs out.
There are also acts of deceit, reference to the use of electronic buzzers — the “maquina” or “machine” — to shock a horse into action and admission of falsifying employee documents.
A veterinarian goes so far as to call Lasix, the anti-bleeding diuretic that is administered to almost every racehorse in North America on raceday, a performance-enhancing drug because horses shed weight. It’s a fact everyone has always known finally given voice by an actual vet for all to see.
The domino effect so far has been for the National Racing Hall of Fame to table the nomination of Asmussen, for Asmussen to fire Blasi, and for owner Ahmed Zayat to fire Asmussen, whose barn was home to 12 Zayat horses that have been dispersed to other trainers. Asmussen trained Zayat’s 2011 Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro, whose chronically bad feet are graphically described in the video.
One of the trainers who collected some of Zayat’s dispersed stock is Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, which is just beautiful, because Lukas is shown in a snippet of the PETA video cracking up with Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens in a conversation about the use of buzzers.
Although there’s no time stamp on the video, I’d wager that the subject came up at the dinner table in the wake of accusations that Lukas’ jockey, Luis Saez, used one in winning the Travers on Will Take Charge last year.
As Stevens tells it, he fried himself with a buzzer while discarding it after some past race, and everybody has a big belly laugh over that.
Many of the treatments and practices shown in the video are legal and routine, but are skillfully portrayed in a negative light for maximum effect by PETA.
Racing isn’t rotten to the core, and I’m no fan of PETA, but this latest scandal has the potential to take the sport in two directions.
Asmussen is one of the most prominent figures in the sport, the second-winningest trainer of all time who also has a history of drug penalties that include a six-month suspension in 2006 that barely made a ripple in one of the most far-flung mega-stables in the country. Business as usual.
It’s like a corporation that chalks up pollution fines to the cost of doing business.
He’s in a deep pile now, especially because of the fraud complaint by PETA in regard to the worker documents. That’s one of 10 filed by PETA to state and federal agencies in New York and Kentucky.
This could be the ultimate takedown of the disjointed sport, if the public perception is driven by the 9 1⁄2 minutes and a business-as-usual response by the regulatory bodies supported by a lack of outcry from fellow horsemen who are being cheated as much as the bettors and fans.
Or this could be the impetus for state and federal agencies to curtail (legal) drug-stacking, establish state-to-state rules uniformity and start snooping around barns more, taking a harder and more consistent look at what goes on there so that the rats don’t have the comfort level they’ve enjoyed at the expense of the horses.
Then we all win, and won’t feel dirty doing it. Most importantly, we can strive to eliminate undue suffering by the animals.
Ignorance is no longer an excuse; spin is no longer an option.
Apologists can point to PETA’s history of agenda-driven sensationalism, which is readily apparent in the Asmussen video. There’s fallacious connect-the-dots insinuation all over the thing.
But all ripping PETA does is deflect attention from the fact that racing continues to be its own worst enemy.