Archive for Steve Asmussen

The Response to the PETA Video is All About Not Overreacting and Not Underreacting

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Mitchell of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!


American Thoroughbred racing took a full-speed, unprotected body blow last week when undercover work done by an animal-rights activist group was published by the New York Times.

Recapping the story seems unnecessary as widely distributed as it was through social media, but here we go. A young woman representing People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) got a job in trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn. Over four months she reportedly recorded seven hours of video with a hidden camera (smart phone?), and PETA condensed the content into a damning 91⁄2-minute documentary. The highlights of the video include: callous and profane comments from Asmussen’s now former assistant trainer Scott Blasi about the horses under his care; a farrier discussing the apparently horrible condition of the feet of Nehro—Ahmed Zayat’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) runner-up while he was in training; and, a dinner conversation during which Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens and Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas joke about the use of “buzzers,” battery-powered devices created to shock horses into action.

The dramatic, sensational descriptions and characterizations in the PETA documentary were not surprising considering the video was created by an organization that is outspoken about its goal to end horse racing. The video and the comments spliced together, however, lack context while the overlaid narration makes nefarious connections to what is being shown though none may exist. You see a lot of footage of veterinarians with needles and comments about horses getting daily regimens of painkillers and performance-enhancing drugs.

Everything is poured into one bucket: all medications are bad and all horses are abused. The PETA investigator recorded seven hours of video but all we get to see is just over nine minutes of it, some of which is not related to Asmussen at all. Included is footage shot at an Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co.’s under tack show a couple of years ago where a 2-year-old sale candidate unfortunately broke down. Sad and disturbing, but completely unrelated. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what’s in the other six hours and 51 minutes? What are the full conversations from which these inflammatory statements were lifted?

Embracing the story as the full truth about horse racing is wrong, but dismissing the story solely as the fabrication of radicals also would be wrong.

The industry needs to pay attention.

An over-reliance on medication is damaging the sport’s reputation. Owners complain about escalating vet bills, the use of furosemide exploded from an as-needed medication to one that is now given to 95% of starters, and the public hears increasingly about products like thyroxine, a hormone that accelerates metabolism and increases cardiovascular output by enhancing heart contractions. Veterinarians reportedly give thyroxine to overweight horses but the product was reportedly given as a regular dietary supplement by both Asmussen and, until recently, Bob Baffert.

Anti-inflammatory drugs for sore joints and muscles are legal therapeutic medications and have their place, but they cannot be used as short-cuts in conditioning. If a horse is not holding up to the stress of training, maybe it needs time off instead of treatment.

Owners have a responsibility here, too. Don’t just pay the bill. Ask questions about what is being given to your horses and why.

And for the owners and trainers who simply know no other way than to continually try to game the system, the industry must accelerate its efforts to cull these bad apples. The proposed uniform medication rules and penalties created by the Racing Medication & Testing Consortium and the Association of Racing Commissioners International include tougher sanctions—up to a five-year suspension and $50,000 fine for trainers caught with a third Class A offense; and for owners, a disqualification, loss of purse, $50,000 fine, and the horse suspended from running for 180 days following a third offense.

To state racing commissioners: You cannot implement these penalties fast enough.

It also cannot be stressed enough that the racing industry must find a way to promote the people who truly care. Put their faces in front of the public and tell the stories of how much their horses are part of their lives and their families. Show the sacrifices they make to keep their horses healthy and happy.

Luckily for racing, these stories are not marketing spin. Honorable owners, breeders, and trainers are out there, doing right by their horses every day.



PETA Video: Catalyst For Change or Extremist Propaganda Which Should Be Ignored????

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Gary West of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

A time for rational minds

A reasonable response would have been that since PETA produced the video that alleges “abuse and mistreatment” of thoroughbreds among other offenses, it should be ignored. After all, a PETA video could have no credibility but could only be propaganda created for no other purpose than traducing the sport and its competitors. But it’s too late for a reasonable response, and the now-famous video is too outrageous, too odious and too vile to ignore.

The New York Times, not surprisingly since it habitually dives for every line PETA tosses into the water, was the first to bite; the newspaper allowed itself to be used as a sort of legitimizer for a video that’s so deceptive in its distortions it would have been admired by the greatest of propaganda ministers. Various media then picked up the story, and as often happens, herd instinct took over. New York and Kentucky promised there would be investigations. And citing those pending investigations, the Hall of Fame, which at this point could do nothing else, tabled the nomination of trainer Steve Asmussen.

PETA, of course, depends for financing on its ability to incite the small minded into a paroxysm of donating. And the video, thanks to an assist from the Times, will no doubt accomplish just that with its sensational allegations of mistreatment, tossed not just at Asmussen and his top assistant, Scott Blasi, but at the entire horse industry. Given exclusive access, the Times reported that the video “showed widespread mistreatment of horses.” But does it really?

The video is supposedly the work of an undercover investigator who worked as a hot walker for Asmussen for four months in 2013. And so four months of furtive slinking around yielded just nine minutes and 29 seconds of video? That’s all? Who among us wouldn’t be thrilled if the accumulation of his bad moments added up to less than 2½ minutes a month?

Actually, the video shows no abuse or mistreatment of horses. Nobody strikes a horse or hurts a horse. Nothing illegal takes place. For the most part, the video shows horses receiving injections, being scoped and examined. It shows, in other words, rather ordinary treatment and nothing sinister. Only somebody who looks with his preconceptions and not his eyes, somebody who gullibly believes — or desperately wants to believe — every word from the voiced-over narrator, could mistake this treatment for mistreatment.

The narrator says: “Death and injuries are business as usual. … To train and race through all the injuries, exhaustion and pain, horses are subjected to an endless cycle of performance-enhancing medication and pain-masking drugs.” And, by the way, this comes from an organization that last year alone reportedly killed 1,792 cats and dogs at its headquarters/shelter in Norfolk, Va., and has killed more than 31,000 since 1998, not irrelevant facts when considered in the context of PETA’s motives. The Times even ran a piece in July of last year about the uproar these actions have caused.

Asmussen is barely present in the video. Most of all, it shows Blasi at his worst, behaving like a high school knucklehead who’s so eager to impress that he brags, with an alarmingly vulgar and weak vocabulary, about how tough and bad and smart he is. Sometimes his assertions are just mistakenly wrong. Sometimes he sounds like the same knucklehead boasting in the crudest terms about what may or may not have happened in the backseat of his Chevy. It’s not very unlike the hyperbolic boasting and bragging in any other workplace.

Blasi’s crude insensitivity and seeming disregard might be the most disturbing aspect of the video. Anybody who abuses horses should be banned from the sport, but that isn’t what this video shows. And leaping to any conclusion based on 9½ minutes of highly selective and deceptively edited video would be not just unwise but downright dumb. Were there moments during those four months when the undercover agent was slinking around that Asmussen and Blasi expressed or demonstrated their respect and affection for the horses in their care? Almost certainly, but those moments weren’t recorded, or at least weren’t included. Were there moments when overflowing compassion and admiration moved workers in that barn to gestures of genuine tenderness and kindness? Very possibly, but those moments weren’t recorded, or at least weren’t included. The video, in other words, makes no attempt to reach any truth.

That’s why a reasonable response would have been to ignore it. But it’s too late for that. And so there needs to be an investigation — of PETA.


Has The Bar Been Lowered To Allow Modern Racehorses Into The Hall of Fame???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Bill Christine of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

The Battle For The Ballot

Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of the Racing Hall of Fame, which is entertaining suggestions from its electorate to determine what horses and horsemen belong on this year’s ballot. It never was an exact science, and definitely not a soft go, and the panjandrums of the process made it harder a year ago when they rejiggered the rules for the umpteenth time.

It used to be that the voting mass threw the names of a worthy horse or two, a jockey and a trainer against the wall and hoped that the nominating committee would make them stick. But now the first round in this thinkfest is a Heinz varieties: You’re allowed to proffer a mix and match that can’t exceed four–four horses maybe and no horsemen, or two horses, one trainer and one jockey for example, and so on and so on. I hope you get the picture, because I barely do. Ever try weighing the Hall of Fame credentials of John Velazquez vis a vis Ghostzapper? Forget apples and oranges, this is rutabagas and eggplant.

I did not get the names of Velazquez and Ghostzapper out of the well-known hat. Ghostzapper, Horse of the Year in 2004, is eligible for the ballot for the first time. Velazquez, after riding 20 years, was first-time eligible last year, and I, along with Mrs. Velazquez, was surprised that he wasn’t automatically enshrined.

Randy Romero was the only jockey elected (Don Pierce was also enshrined, courtesy of the Historic Review Committee). Romero, bless him, was no cheese champion, but Velazquez, with his marvelous record, seemed to be the veritable lead pipe. Going into this year, his mounts have earned $241 million, which ranked him behind only Pat Day, Jerry Bailey and Chris McCarron, all retired and all in the Hall of Fame. Velazquez has also won more than 4,500 races, winning with 18% of his mounts while riding on the East Coast, in colonies where the top competition can be found. He should be rubber-stamped by both the nominating committee and the voters.

Ghostzapper is something else again. He lost only twice, when he was masquerading as a sprinter, but his career encompassed only 11 races in four years, and he ran around two turns only twice. But he won the Vosburgh and the Woodward and the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Metropolitan Mile, quite a four-bagger for any horse. I don’t know, did he do enough? The bar is being lowered, year by year, because horses aren’t asked to do what their predecessors routinely did. More and more, the voters will be asked to judge horses with records like Ghostzapper, and another lightly raced colt before us, for the second straight year, is Smarty Jones. Smarty Jones was beaten only once, out of nine races, but he never raced beyond his loss to Birdstone in the Belmont, wasn’t around to challenge Ghostzapper in the Breeders’ Cup and never won a Horse of the Year title. I don’t think Smarty Jones belongs on the ballot; more of a case could be made for Saint Liam, who was five when he was voted Horse of the Year. This is his first year of eligibility.

Until the Historic Review Committee tapped Buster Millerick, last year would have hit the books without a trainer being inducted. The two trainers on the ballot, Gary Jones and Bob Wheeler, might get another chance this year, but with Steve Asmussen eligible for the first time, the slots will be hard to come by. Asmussen, fifth on the money list with $171 million through 2010, might be thought of as a sure thing, but the many drug positives for his horses over the years might stop some voters in their tracks. Baseball has a morals clause in its Hall of Fame voting rules, but horse racing does not. My guess is that Asmussen will be swept into the hall on the first try, and since the panjandrums don’t release vote counts, we’ll never know how convincing his candidacy was.

A trainer overdue for induction is Jerry Hollendorfer, who didn’t even make the ballot last year. Hollendorfer wins races by the carload, and piles up millions of dollars in purse money as well. Pre-2011, he was fourth in lifetime wins (5,863) and eighth in purses ($119 million).

“Jerry Hollendorfer is the biggest omission. . . ” Steve Davidowitz, the veteran turf writer, author and handicapper, told me last year. “It was completely inexplicable that he was (not on the 2010 ballot), given his extraordinary history of success in Northern California and his victories in major stakes with limited opportunities. If Hollendorfer has not earned a place in the Hall of Fame, there is no Hall of Fame worth talking about.”

Limited to four, I’m likely to send along to the Hall of Fame the names of Asmussen, Hollendorfer, Velazquez and Ghostzapper. One of the inequities of the process is that those three magnificent fillies–Sky Beauty, Safely Kept and Open Mind–have been effectively working against each other’s chances every time they all appear on the ballot, as was the case a year ago. Because they were unsuccessful finalists, we’re told that the nominating committee will automatically consider them again without any prodding from the likes of me. In a perfect world, it would be nice if the three of them all went into the shrine together. I’m not making book that that will happen.