Cross-posted from the New York Times
WRITTEN BY JOE DRAPE
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 nytimes.com >>