Scandal casts shadow over grandeur of Kentucky Derby

Steve Asmussen, right, the trainer with the second-most career victories, leads Kentucky Derby contender Tapiture during early morning workouts at Churchill Downs. Asmussen is under state and federal investigation over accusations of various forms of cruelty. Credit Jamie Squire/Getty Images.
Steve Asmussen, right, the trainer with the second-most career victories, leads Kentucky Derby contender Tapiture during early morning workouts at Churchill Downs. Asmussen is under state and federal investigation over accusations of various forms of cruelty. Credit Jamie Squire/Getty Images.

Cross-posted from the New York Times

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Early Saturday night, the horses for the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby will saunter onto the racetrack as a capacity crowd at Churchill Downs serenades them with a full-throated “My Old Kentucky Home.” It promises to be a stirring tableau of America’s oldest sport showcasing its history and grandeur and the beautiful athletes at its center.

It is what makes the first Saturday in May a holiday for anyone who has brushed a horse, or climbed atop one, or taken $2 to a betting window because of the appeal of a horse’s name.

But in recent years, this rite of spring has been accompanied by a new dimension: scandal. The latest involves Steve Asmussen, the trainer with the second-most career victories, who is under state and federal investigation over accusations of various forms of cruelty, including administering drugs to horses for nontherapeutic purposes and having a jockey use an electrical device to shock horses into running faster.

Asmussen is here and will saddle the filly Untapable, the favorite to win the Kentucky Oaks on Friday, as well as a colt named Tapiture in the Derby. He fired his longtime assistant, Scott Blasi, whose voice was prominent on a video recorded with a hidden camera by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but Asmussen has refused to answer questions about the investigations.

The Derby “is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and that’s where the focus is,” he said.

The official scrutiny of Asmussen was prompted by a four-month undercover investigation by PETA.

His presence here has repulsed many horsemen. But there are others who say that Asmussen and the horse racing business at large were the targets of an activist group that wants to shut the sport down. If a picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes, a videotape is worth a million of them.

The videotape shows Blasi acknowledging that shock-wave therapy is excruciatingly painful to horses. It shows how often injections are given and how frequently and haphazardly tranquilizers, painkillers and supplements are dispensed. It is deeply uncomfortable to watch for even the most seasoned horsemen.

The reason is that they know it goes on in far too many barns in American racing. In fact, the argument most often raised to defend Asmussen is that every treatment he employed, every drug he dispensed, was within the rules of the sport.

“Anyone in our business who doesn’t tell you they are conflicted isn’t telling the truth,” said Terry Finley, managing partner of West Point Thoroughbreds, which owns the Derby contender Commanding Curve. Read full report at >>

2 thoughts on “Scandal casts shadow over grandeur of Kentucky Derby”

  1. Drug use and abuse in training are only part of the shadow cast over the Kentucky Derby. Focusing on reform on this area will not remove the fact that horse racing remains predicated on overbreeding and therefore treating horses who don’t make the performance grade as if they were nothing but disposable trash to be sent to the slaughter plant. Are people aware that thousands of nurse mare foals are taken from their real mothers so that TB foals can take their place ? What is the fate of these foals ? They are turned into “pony leather” products after being killed. At the other end of the spectrum are horses who are raced too early and suffer injuries. They too are sent to slaughter in Canada or Mexico by those interested only in maximizing profit while pretending to hold the horse in reverent regard. And we all know that also-rans, even Kentucky Derby Winners have been sent to slaughter once they are no longer considered useful in breeding more “winners” The drug and training abuse issue are just the beginning of the blood tainted, suffering based “entertainment” embodied in the “glorious” Kentucky Derby world ! Of the thousands of horses being shipped to slaughter every year the also-rans from the racing TB’s constitute 20% – higher if you count the thousands of nurse mare foals that do not see many days of life at all.


  2. In 1986 as a young idealist I went to work for a Canadian racing trainer working in the US – this trainer had the newly minted idea of using interval training on racing prospects which included first and most importantly waiting until the prospect was at least a full 3 by their actual birthdate AND that they had passed examination of the maturity of leg development. The program included long slow distance work to build muscle, ligament and tendon and to correctly layer on calcium development of leg bones. Speed wasn’t a part of the equation until the horse was physically developed to the point where aerobic and anerobic capacity could safely be increased without causing lameness. Not one single horse in our barn had a single lameness. Never. Not even once. We used state of the art (for those days) on-board heart rate monitors to gauge recovery times and those priceless legs were cared for oh so thoroughly. Contrast that with the horrific practices of the trainer in the next aisle over – unspeakable cruelty to the horses in his care. AND THAT TRAINER WAS A VETERINARIAN. Despite repeated complaints to the owner of the training facility the abusive trainer was allowed to stay and continue practicing his abuses – you do not want to know how bad because you would not be able to sleep at night knowing what was done to that vet/trainer’s horses. Finally our group moved to another facility – difficult because we then had to haul out for a training track. Because of what I witnessed the other trainer doing I made the decision that I could never be involved in racing and I would never attend any race ever again and moreover would never watch one on TV. It was bad enough seeing the 6 o’clock newsclips of track breakdowns. And do not even get me started on the Barbaro travesty! I’m not a fan of PETA but in the Barbaro matter, well, I often wished that some aggressive activist would have taken matters into their own hands!


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