by JANE ALLIN
Twenty horses, dirt flying around the first turn at Churchill Downs and the sound of hooves thundering down the stretch toward the finish line in pursuit of the first jewel in the Triple Crown – the Kentucky Derby.
Steeped in tradition, the first Saturday in May brings with it fancy and outrageous hats and frosty mint juleps served over crushed ice in souvenir Derby glasses while fans belt out “My Old Kentucky Home” as the young Thoroughbreds step onto the track.
Beneath the Twin Spires, top-notch trainers and horses in the North American Thoroughbred racing industry convene to vie for the coveted garland of roses and gold Derby trophy – the “most exciting two minutes in sports” they say. But behind all the pomp and circumstance lies an ugly truth mired in a sordid drug culture that permeates the very core of the industry.
Most will acknowledge that despite the questionable reputation of PETA, the explosive article in the New York Times penned by Joe Drape shook the foundation of North American racing.
“The story in question, “PETA Accuses Two Trainers of Cruelty,” came on like a thunderclap and is profound for many reasons. First, the video upon which it is based allows people to see for themselves a little* of what animal activists have long alleged at the highest level of thoroughbred racing. The focus is on trainer Steve Asmussen, a controversial conditioner, and his top assistant trainer, Scott Blasi.** The images are of the treatment of world-class horses training at two of the most revered and distinguished tracks in America—Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York.” 
While some dismiss the video as activist propaganda, it unquestionably probes into the underbelly of the backstretch to reveal what everyone already knew – so-called secrets guarded by those in the industry with a pretext akin to the Hippocratic Oath upheld by physicians and health care professionals across the globe.
Perhaps the rush for measures of reform in the wake of this most uncomfortable exposé of racing indignities in the name of horse welfare will force the industry to re-think its business model – an opportunity to recapture what was once referred to as the “Sport of Kings”. No doubt the public is deserving as are those in the industry with a conscience but loathe to compromise their livelihood, lest they lose it.
I am not holding my breath. This purported reform has been in the works for years without consolidated movement within the machinations of this fragmented miasma called North American horse racing. It is without direction and at the discretion of those who want it to remain deceitful with the bogus façade of responsible governance simply to serve their egos and lust for monetary needs.
As it is, it is a free-for-all for those at the top – more precisely, the celebrated trainers – millionaires who have no misgivings about putting the horse at risk – reckless abandon so to say. Unwarranted medications, manipulation of the entry box (yes Mr. Baffert we know all about it), grossly overpaid veterinarians attesting to the integrity of the sport spewing both lies and unbalanced science yet accepted as fact. Why? Because the industry has no governing body and fails to hold itself accountable.
In the scurry following the PeTA video there has been a plethora of horse racing organizations jumping on the bandwagon and demanding tighter control over medications leading up to and on race day – all sorts of articles proclaiming that it must be done.
- Alex Waldrop, president and chief executive officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and chairman of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium demanding the implementation of uniform drug rules across the nation. http://goo.gl/pyL4ti
- Breeders’ Cup president Craig Fravel, in comments made on the first day of the Association of Racing Commissioners International’s three-day conference in Lexington, also encouraging racing regulators and other industry officials that they should use existing tools to push states to adopt the National Uniform Medication Program. http://goo.gl/cQK3dH
- Ed Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI), horse racing’s umbrella regulatory group, accusing the sport of “self-flagellation” and participants’ refusal to take responsibility for their actions—or lack thereof. http://goo.gl/AsA0kD
- The Jockey Club’s stance on supporting federal legislation to put the United States Anti-Doping Agency in charge of bringing law and order to the sport known for its pervasive drug culture and ineffectual ability to implement across the board drug regulations despite having come up with a national uniform medication program – only 4 of the 38 states with racing have fully executed this agenda. http://goo.gl/Eyl67E
The list goes on, but what if anything will actually be done about it? Will this PETA incident simply be swept under the table as time goes on? Forgotten and filed away as insignificant misdemeanors just like all the other racing wrongs in the past?
One announcement in particular caught my eye especially given the impending Triple Crown. Coming from The Jockey Club and backed by a number of prominent Thoroughbred owners and trainers a movement akin to what was once taboo in the shedrows of the racing word – public veterinary records.
“A large and growing number of prominent Thoroughbred owners and trainers have voluntarily pledged to make veterinary records of their horses competing in graded stakes races in the United States and Canada available to the public, The Jockey Club announced April 17.
Such records will cover the 14-day period preceding and including the day of each race and will be available on the day of the race at least two hours prior to post time. The pledges take effect immediately.” 
Wonderful news indeed – finally a modicum of transparency in an otherwise “cloak and dagger” enterprise replete with lies and deception and renowned for punishing those who speak out about the truth.
Or is it?
First of all, it’s voluntary. Secondly, a closer look at the roster of owners and trainers in agreement with this progressive, yet implausible, initiative reveals an expected trend.
“The current list of high-profile owners includes Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs, John Amerman, Antony Beck, Gary Biszantz, Bill Casner, Claiborne Farm, Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley and Godolphin, Adele Dilschneider, Dogwood Stable, Will Farish, Glen Hill Farm, Harris Farms (John Harris), Stuart S. Janney III, Charlotte Weber’s Live Oak Stud, Earle Mack, Josephine Abercrombie’s Pin Oak Stud, Dr. Hiram Polk Jr., Phipps Stable, Dr. J. David Richardson, Barbara Banke’s Stonestreet Stables, Stella Thayer, Three Chimneys Farm, Tic Stable (Ian Highet), Terry Finley’s West Point Thoroughbreds, Peter Willmott, WinStar Farm, Woodford Racing (Bill Farish), and Zayat Stables.
Trainers include Roger Attfield, Mark Casse, Christophe Clement, Neil Drysdale, Mark Hennig, D. Wayne Lukas, Richard Mandella, Michael Matz, Shug McGaughey, Ken McPeek, Graham Motion, Bill Mott, John Shirreffs, Al Stall Jr., Dallas Stewart, and Ian Wilkes.” 
As much as owners should be held accountable for the administration of drugs prescribed by trainers and their steadfast veterinarians this is rarely the case. Trainers run the barns and dictate the needs of their horses to their subservient veterinarians – servile perhaps but not without underlying reason, after all money talks. Moreover several of the owners on the list employ trainers who aren’t on the list – so how does that work? For example Winstar Farm has agreed to transparency yet Todd Pletcher who is the trainer for Derby hopeful Vinceremos hasn’t.
Consequently the move is purely altruistic and serves itself up as false hope – meaningless propaganda. Clearly the trainers that have opted to disclose their medication records are all the “good guys” – those who garner respect and have ethics when it comes to both racing and the horse. Sadly trainers that should be there simply aren’t.
So who are these trainers missing from this brave new world, one that is long overdue in Thoroughbred racing? There is no need to look further than the top-ranked trainers in the U.S. – those who dominate the country’s most important races, also known to manipulate the system and literally “get away with murder” simply because they can.
How you may ask?
It is the lack of oversight in a crippled and corrupt system with cronies at the top making decisions based on their debauched relationships with those who hold power and prestige within the Thoroughbred racing world. Lord knows what goes on behind closed doors but it has been said many a time that there is nothing above-board about it.
Recently the 2014 American Graded Stakes Standings were published in a Paulick Report Article including the top five ranking trainers in North America. 
Not a single graded stakes trainer in the top five in the industry is willing to bare it all. And for good reason – they all cheat.
In fact a look at the top 20 trainers for 2014, in terms of winnings, shows only three trainers on the list that have agreed to public veterinary records – Graham Motion, Bill Mott and D. Wayne Lukas.  How on earth can anyone have faith in an industry when the best-of-the-best fail to participate in something that stands for integrity and moral substance?
There is only one answer – they have something to hide.
After all, 14 days before a race is a long time to stay clean rather than pumping your horses full of poison to keep them on their feet and moving.
Of the three in the top twenty in agreement with publicizing records one in particular is predictable – Graham Motion, who brings with him an unblemished record without a single medication violation. Bill Mott has a strong reputation and despite being cited for medication violations none have been for performance-enhancing drugs with no therapeutic value – in effect, simple overages and not deliberate attempts to influence the results of the race.
D. Wayne Lukas is a surprise given his checkered past – the era of the Class 1 cocaine violation, buzzer mania and other serious infractions. Perhaps implications on the PETA video may have him looking to disinfect his reputation or more likely the fact that Lukas is also a commissioner on the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which is investigating PETA’s allegations.
With the running of the Kentucky Derby this Saturday, the pinnacle of North America’s prestigious Graded Stakes, let’s have a have a quick look at the Derby contenders in relation to those who chose to participate in transparency. The list of the 23 horses eligible to race in the Derby as of April 29th including trainers and recent scratches and be found here: http://www.bloodhorse.com/pdf/20140428DerbyOaksUpdate.pdf
Mind you, only 20 will end up racing but the 23 contenders are there lest any horse is scratched due to injury or whatever reason. Since this time the entries and post positions have been confirmed. 
It is definitely a sad day when only three trainers on the list of Kentucky Derby hopefuls have agreed to disclose veterinarian records to the public (Graham Motion, Dallas Stewart and Shug McGaughey III), and even more so when two of their horses have been scratched (Motion and McGaughey). Only a single horse with a principled trainer will be running in the crown jewel of North America’s most revered horse race.
Now let’s look at the top five graded stakes trainers, none of whom support public drug records. All but one (Hollendorfer) have horses as Derby contenders and in a very disproportionate number. Scratched horses are included in the tally to better illustrate how some trainers dominate and are virtually guaranteed a position at the gate.
A whopping 35% of would-be entrants are represented by four trainers, not one willing to lay bare their drug records. OK, fair enough – there is nothing atypical of Asmussen and Sadler having a single entrant given they are in the top five trainer rankings but the number of entrants connected to Pletcher and Baffert is contemptible – 29% of the horses split between two trainers.
Talk about domination – and these aren’t the only horses these individuals had running for the roses.
In contrast to morally responsible trainers each of the top five graded stakes trainers has been involved in questionable practices to the detriment of the horse. It is not simply unintentional overages that any of these trainers have been cited for – it is deliberate use of performance enhancing medications – both illegal and therapeutic – devious exploitation evolving from greed and ego.
Cheating is a choice not a mistake.
Read Part 2 >>
FEATURED IMAGE SOURCE: Orb ridden by Joel Rosario comes down the final stretch on his way to winning the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 4, 2013 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)