Asmussen Baffert and Pletcher

Horse Racing in America: A Spectacle of Liars, Dopers and Cheaters – Part 2

by JANE ALLIN

The Cheaters

STEVE ASMUSSEN

Where better to start than the new poster boy of the Thoroughbred racing world – the unscrupulous Hall-of-Famer Steve Asmussen – Public Enemy number one according to Andrew Beyer.

He has shamed thoroughbred racing so badly that the chairman of the Jockey Club, Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, declared that there is “a dark cloud hovering over our sport” and that Asmussen ought to stay away from the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks.” [1]

While the indiscriminate use of therapeutics and performance-enhancing drugs in the horse racing industry is not really news, the undercover recordings made by a PETA investigator at Asmussen’s barn are. For decades these activities have taken place, clandestinely if you will, hidden from public scrutiny by the code of silence.

  • Although it’s approved only as a prescription medication for horses with hypothyroidism, the drug thyroxine was being administered to many, if not all, horses in Asmussen’s New York stable, without any apparent testing or evidence of any thyroid condition. This drug was recklessly administered seemingly just to speed up metabolism—not for any therapeutic purpose.
  • Lasix—a controversial drug banned in Europe on race days—was injected into “basically all” of Asmussen’s horses who were being raced or timed in New York. A powerful drug meant to prevent pulmonary bleeding in the lungs during extreme exercise, Lasix is a diuretic that can serve as a masking agent for other drugs and also dehydrates horses to make them lose weight and run faster. One of New York State’s top horse-racing veterinarians admitted on camera to PETA’s investigator that Lasix is a performance-enhancing medication.
  • Horses’ legs showed multiple scars from being burned with liquid nitrogen―a process called freeze-firing―and burned with other irritating “blistering” chemicals, purportedly to stimulate blood flow to their sore legs.
  • Horses were also given muscle relaxants, sedatives, and other potent pharmaceuticals to be used for treating ailments such as ulcers, lameness, and inflammation, at times even when the animals had no apparent symptoms. [2]

Exactly what everyone assumed is now out there for public scrutiny.

Over time Asmussen has run up a history of racing violations as have many of the top ranking trainers in the industry.

Probably the most serious violation was a 6-month suspension he served for a filly named No End in Sight who tested positive for mepivacaine, an illegal nerve-blocking agent that suppresses pain and permits horses to run on injured legs.

Despite the fact the No End in Sight tested 750 times over the legal limit, Asmussen claimed he hadn’t a clue as to how the drug got into her system. In fact he suggested that the veterinarians had mistakenly given the horse mepivicaine, a lame excuse by any measure (pardon the pun). Interestingly enough, at the same time, he admitted to using two other illegal drugs on race day – one to increase endurance and the other to reduce bleeding in the lungs (on top of the Lasix shot).

“The vets said this would be impossible. Mepivacaine was injected directly into the joint. The other illegal drugs, which they insisted they hadn’t given, were shot into the jugular. If mepivacaine were injected into the jugular it would bring a horse to its knees.” [3]

Given the horse’s history together with the fact that he had ordered cortisone shot a week prior to the race for knee problems, speculation has it that the administration of the drug was intentional. If so this is exceptionally reckless behavior as it not only jeopardizes the horse but also those on the racetrack – jockeys and horses alike.

Asmussen had used this tired excuse on several earlier occasions to explain away positive tests for illegal drugs on race day – once for ketorolac a powerful anti-inflammatory and twice for clenbuterol. The ubiquitous clenbuterol — a widely abused bronchodilator medication in the racing industry for respiratory problems regularly used to build muscle by mimicking anabolic steroids even when administered in therapeutic doses.

And that’s not all; there were positives for acepromazine, a powerful sedative and the anesthetic lidocaine among others.

Yet in spite of all these infractions over the years his devoted assistant, now terminated after the PETA scandal, assumed responsibility of Asmussen’s stables so that no horses missed a race – in fact not a penalty at all – business as usual.

As a prime example, when Asmussen was suspended for the mepivacaine in 2006, Blasi assumed the responsibility of “trainer” and Asmussen walked away with over 14 million dollars in earnings. [4]

Criminal – simply criminal.

BOB BAFFERT

Racehorse Doping Trainer Violations List

Moving on to Bob Baffert.

To start, in 2013 Bob Baffert was number three on the list of top trainers by earnings with the most medication violations – a total of 20 violations resulting in 545 starts per medication violation. [5]

This list itself changes from year-to-year however Baffert always manages to make it into one of the top positions.

For example in 2010 Baffert (465 starts per violation) maintained that bronze medal position just edging out John Sadler (478 starts per violation) who had to settle for fourth that year. [6] Both consistent repeat offenders near the top of the list.

The most recent scandal associated with Baffert is the rash of mysterious “sudden deaths” due to cardiovascular/pulmonary failures of seven race horses over the course of several months (November 4, 2011 through March 14, 2013). [7]

What is particularly disturbing about these deaths is that by all accounts sudden death failures are a relatively rare occurrence, together with the fact that of the total number of “sudden deaths” over the same time period roughly 20% were stabled with Baffert.

As expected, Baffert was cleared in the sudden deaths of the seven horses by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB). An extensive investigation concluded there was no evidence of wrongdoing yet the CHRB could find no specific reason for the abnormal number of deaths in one stable – inconclusive at best – Dr. Rick Arthur to the rescue of course.

The question remains as to whether the results were inconclusive or intentionally covered up? One will never know, however it is well recognized that the CHRB and the members of the TOC (Thoroughbred Owners of California) are chronically corrupt – no one it seems has the power to enforce rules and disband the manipulators even after all these years of lies and deceit.

There are several theories of what may have gone wrong in the sudden deaths of Baffert’s horses. One is linked to the finding of a rodenticide in one of the horses, an anti-coagulant that thins the blood. But why would anyone administer an anticoagulant to a horse, particularly since it is a highly toxic compound in EPA Toxicity Class I?

EPO has been widely used as a performance-enhancing drug despite being an illicit drug in horse racing. EPO increases the number of red cells circulating in the blood which increases its viscosity but also increasing its oxygen carrying capacity and hence endurance. From a doping perspective the administration of an anticoagulant such as Diphacinone will counterbalance the effect of thicken blood. Conjecture, well yes but . . . .

Then there is the administration of Thyro-L (levothyroxine) to “all” of his horses regardless of their thyroid function wherein Baffert was using it as a supplement rather than medication.

Thyro-L is a thyroid hormone (T4) used to treat hypothyroidism, a condition where the body fails to produce a sufficient amount of thyroxine which revs up the metabolism. In doing so Baffert was clearly doping.

The fact that a drug is administered when there is no apparent underlying condition present is simply seeking to achieve a surrogate benefit; in this case enhanced performance (speed) due to weight loss. Of course Baffert (and Asmussen) gave it to all of his horses. He was legally cheating to win.

Don’t forget Baffert’s past either and the disappointing decision made by the CHRB.

Initially the CHRB suspended Baffert for 60 days after the horse Nautical Look tested positive for morphine after finishing first in the 7th race at Hollywood Park on May 3, 2000.

Baffert however appealed the decision using the pretext that the morphine positive was pharmacologically insignificant and likely resulted from environmental contamination – from poppy seed bagels consumed by stable employees (poppy seeds contain opium alkaloids one of which is morphine).

If administering morphine to enhance a horse’s performance isn’t bad enough, Baffert had the audacity to coerce a groom in his employ to lie to investigators. Baffert testified that the positive finding was a result of “unintentional contamination” from a food source containing poppy seeds (poppy seeds contain opiate alkaloids one of which is morphine).

While it is true that poppy seeds can generate false positive drug tests, Baffert went a step further. When notified of the positive result he repeatedly contacted his groom and encouraged him to admit to eating bakery products while in close proximity to the horse Nautical Look.

If that doesn’t reek of guilt, what does?

In any case, the CHRB dismissed the case after 5 years despite the fact that there was lax security in the barn the evening before with no night watchman. Moreover Baffert’s attorney argued that Nautical Look’s blood sample was part of a batch randomly discarded as a cost-cutting measure so there was no blood to test to support the results of the urine sample. What wasn’t mentioned is that a separate split sample was available for 45 days following the race yet Baffert did not request a test of that sample. [8]

You be the judge.

Keep in mind that Baffert hails from California and has close ties to all those instrumental in running the CHRB – all the important people like Chuck Winner, Bo Derek, Dr. Rick Arthur for example, and other prominent influencers such as Zayat Racing Stables. Rumor has it that Zayat is under investigation for placing large bets allegedly manipulating the outcome of races in conjunction with Baffert.

Asmussen and Baffert are not alone when it comes to a past tainted with drug violations.

TODD PLETCHER

Todd Pletcher, the leading graded stakes trainer, has his share of dirty laundry as well.

Probably one of the saddest stories to come out of Pletcher’s drug cabinet was that of Coronado Heights.

One need only recall the fate of this 4-year-old thoroughbred who received a diagnosis of early degenerative joint disease. In the week prior to a race at Aqueduct, ten different drugs were administered, often in multiple doses, to quell his unsoundness, the only reason being that his ethically challenged owner and trainer – Todd Pletcher – could not bear the thought of losing out on the prospect of winning. Sadly Coronado Heights broke down and was euthanized on the track.

DRUGS, SUFFERING AND DEATH

Phenylbutazone; Estrone; Flunixin; Hyaluronic acid; Lasix; Adequan; Xylazine; Vitamin B12; Methyprednisolone; Calcium.

While all of these drugs are considered therapeutic, enough is enough. Any horse that requires this much medication to run should not be running at all. Just like Asmussen’s unfortunate colt Nehro.

“The video details Nehro’s acute foot problems, but despite warnings from a blacksmith that one of Nehro’s feet has become ‘a little bitty nub,’ Asmussen and Blasi continued to train and race him. Nehro died at Churchill Downs on the morning of the 2013 Kentucky Derby. Asmussen said Nehro had colic and died on the way to the hospital. Blasi described it as the most violent death he’d ever seen.” [9]

Outside of the misuse and abuse of legal therapeutics leading up to a race, Pletcher also has numerous illegal medication violations on his record. For example, in 2008 the CHRB fined Pletcher $25,000 and suspended him for a minimum of 10 days when Wait a While tested positive for the anesthetic procaine a Class 3 drug in the state of California. Procaine can act as a stimulant and Wait a While was found to have more than 300 times the allowable limit her system.

“In defense, Mr. Pletcher, through his vet, said the ‘overage’ came from a weeks-old granuloma (which formed after treating a fever) that ruptured and released the trapped drug during the race. The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) practically called this ridiculous. More likely, it said, Wait a While was given another shot(s) of procaine closer to raceday, perhaps within 48 hours. But since there was no proof that Pletcher ordered or knew of it (imagine that), he was handed a 10-day suspension. Wait a While, then 5, never ran again.” [10]

It doesn’t stop there.

In 2004, the horse, Tales of Glory, trained by Pletcher tested positive for the Class 2 drug mepivacaine – the same illegal nerve-blocking agent that suppresses pain that Asmussen received a suspension for. Pletcher appealed with the tried-and-true excuse of environmental contamination along with other possible explanations for the positive but the appeals court dismissed them all.

Then of course there is the Life at Ten controversy – the two-time Grade 1 winner who placed last in the 2010 Breeder’s Cup Ladies Classic.

Not a drug violation per se but rather a not-so-subtle attempt to cheat the bettors – the very crux of the racing industries source of profits.

“Life At Ten came into the Breeders’ Cup off her two-length 2010 Beldame victory and was sent off at nearly 4-1. She finished last after Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez, in separate television interviews, made comments suggesting that the mare was listless in the paddock and was not warming up properly. During the race, Velazquez did not push Life At Ten, who days later developed a fever and was found to have a high white blood-cell count indicative of infection.

Neither Velazquez nor Pletcher had contacted Churchill Downs stewards or track veterinarians before the race, but an HRTV producer, Amy Zimmerman, did relay their comments to the stewards.” [11]

Simply put, Life At Ten should have been scratched.

Cheating the bettors – a sure way to eventually shut down the entire industry – not knowing whether the performance of a horse is related to talent, the drugs they have received or injury. The mindset of those who support this is unthinkable. Preying on the bettors is such a sorry and non-humanitarian way to generate profits.

This is just a snapshot of three of the most controversial trainers out there.

Sadler and Hollendorfer have their own drug violations, as do other prominent trainers, and consistently rank in the top repeat offender list – there is little difference in their perverse methods.

What is clear is that the vast majority of the top trainers in North America resort to illegal and intentional use of therapeutic medications for the single purpose of performance enhancement. And it follows that if top-tier trainers are participating in this level of illegal and “legal” drugging, the competitive rational for trainers at all levels is to run with the herd.

An article penned by Andrew Cohen “The Ugly Truth About Horse Racing” says it best:

“The alleged behavior goes on, decade after decade, because the industry is unwilling to police itself. Because state regulators are feckless and because there is no uniformity among racing jurisdictions. Because the people who develop performance-enhancing drugs are almost always one step ahead of the officials developing tests for those drugs. Because veterinarians give their horses too many drugs too often. And because too many still within the sport equate real reform with a bad-for-marketing acknowledgement of how bad things are. Well, guess what. We are here. There is no longer a man behind a curtain.

How about telling the truth? It can finally set this industry free. Instead of pretending this problem of abuse does not exist, or claiming that the problem is under control, the sport can take the bold leap it will need to take to get to the other side—the side where animal activists aren’t picketing racetracks. That will mean more money for enhanced drug tests. It will mean legislative efforts to better regulate trainers and veterinarians. It will mean swifter and stricter punishment for offenders. It will mean an end to the insider’s code of silence.” [12]

Amen.
__________
[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/othersports/as-kentucky-derby-approaches-racing-industrys-portrayal-of-steve-asmussen-as-a-rogue-trainer-ignores-widespread-issues/2014/04/27/5f33f444-ce0d-11e3-b812-0c92213941f4_story.html
[2] http://goo.gl/kFupOG
[3] http://www.dallasobserver.com/2007-06-28/news/dark-horse/full/
[4] http://www.boston.com/sports/other_sports/horse_racing/articles/2009/11/05/cup_trainers_not_saddled_by_drug_suspensions/
[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/01/sports/industrys-drug-issue-is-one-that-trainers-can-address-instead-of-avoiding.html?_r=0
[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/04/sports/04racing.html
[7] https://tuesdayshorse.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/deadly-to-horses-the-baffert-effect-part-1/ and https://tuesdayshorse.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/deadly-to-horses-the-baffert-effect-part-2/
[8] http://espn.go.com/horse/news/2001/0621/1217145.html
[9] http://m.utsandiego.com/news/2014/mar/28/horse-racing-steve-asmussen-peta/
[10] http://horseracingwrongs.com/2013/10/30/todd-pletcher-the-other-side-of-the-story/
[11] http://espn.go.com/horse-racing/story/_/id/7059974/life-ten-retired-racing-keeneland-sale
[12] http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/03/the-ugly-truth-about-horse-racing/284594/


Read Part 1 >>

5 thoughts on “Horse Racing in America: A Spectacle of Liars, Dopers and Cheaters – Part 2”

  1. no one has even mentioned how many go to slaughter from the track and the issue of nurse mare foals. Besides the issue of drugs and cruelty on the track there is even more horrible cruelty especially when we find former big winners in Broker kill pen lots, skinny, beat up, lame and very abused. This entire industry needs major changes.

    Like

  2. What bothers me too is how Churchill Downs is treating Ron Turcotte–you know Secretariat’s jock…he was paralyzed from the waist down in 78and Churchill Downs will not honor handicap parking for this gentleman. They make him PAY gate entrance to go to the Derby! That was before–now apparently they have barred him from being on the grounds.

    This man works for the goodwill of the sport. He talks to fans and to kids. He’s a role model most of us would want our kids emulating.he also does charity work for disabled jockeys.

    Either Churchill Downs doesn’t want people to know to know the realities facing jocks every time they race or they are attempting an international fracas–Ron is Canadian. He isn’t American. Why ever would you want to start a fight?

    It’s kinda like that fight Calvin Borel had in the winner’s circle a few years ago. Jocks tend to settle their fights in the locker room away from the public–that one spilled over. I know Calvin feels terrible to this day that I would even mention it–but there’s another side to this.

    I was at work several years ago and another employee took upon themselves to harass me. When I finally snapped at them I got a “funny” look (one I took at the time to mean “gotcha ya”). Later on–about a month later…

    I learned a valuable lesson. It takes TWO to settle a personality clash at work. All my life I had been blamed, never understanding really that it also took the other person to help settle things.

    What I think happened is someone got their knickers in a twist, made a dumbbell decision and rather than be seen as weak–they’re gonna go down–I can be right be right, I might be dead, but I’ll still be right. To what end? What does Churchill Downs has to prove to anyone? That they can? BS.

    No ones asking anyone for a PUBLIC ANYTHING. Just give Ron the handicap permit that by law he’s entitled to, a pass to the race he won–not once but TWICE! and oh by the way–in case you’ve forgotten Secretariat DID set the track record that day! Give him a valet cause honestly that’s the right thing to do. Churchill Downs you can do this quietly, no one needs to know the details. It isn’t about whose right or who isn’t.

    Like

  3. So of these unethical trainers have taken the Sport of Kings, made it a Shameful Sport, and what really stinks is its the ones who are highly respected (or at least were), they prove its all about the Money , certainly not for the horses …….. or the respect for the Sport !!!! i also was raised at the track , since I was 5 yrs old…………….I or My Father owned Race Horses , each one of them a Pleasure and a Beauty to behold we always Respected Our Horses , they were treated like part of the Family, they were given only what was good for them, never a druged and sent to the Race track to jeopardize every horse and Jockeys life as well as there own, if they were ill they never went to Race….. they were treated till they were in good health………… If you want the best from your Race Horse you want a happy healthy Horse , he will give you his all………….

    Like

  4. For many years I thought Churchill and other national tracks were just great. Haven’t been to a race in many years – – never knew how poorly these horses were treated or how they were shipped out to the slaughter houses. Unforgivable!

    My grandfather, when he was young did some sulky racing.A huge difference was that my grandfather considered Prince, a pet. That horse lived a long, healthy, happy, life.

    Like

    1. Thank you for your comment Judith. I grew up in Thoroughbred racing (that was many years ago now), and although there were troubles like this surrounding it, absolutely nothing compares with the rampant abuses and cheating that goes on now. “Racinos” and profit only driven corporate interests are closing in and little by little destroying it. I hate to see that, yet at the same time I think it will be a relief to the horses. Thoroughbred racing will still go on, just very little if at all in the US. How tragic that these cheats and abusers can barely get a horse past the Derby trials and into the race itself. That’s okay, because they can sit on their big piles of money while waiting to get into the Hall of Fame. Absolutely shameful.

      Oh, and another wow article from Jane. We thank you. The horses thank you, for continue “banging the drum” on their behalf.

      Like

Comments are closed.