American Pharoah wins the Kentucky Derby on his way to the elusive Triple Crown. Getty Images 2015.

Despite a Triple Crown all that glitters is not gold in American horse racing (Part 2)

by JANE ALLIN

Part 2 of 3

WE THREE KINGS OF RACE CHEATING ARE

Baffert, Pletcher and Asmussen may not always be the top three trainers on the list when it comes to racehorse doping violations but they seem to very near the top if not always on the top.

Notwithstanding that, the names of these three racehorse trainers are linked with some of the most egregious doping and cruelty cases making their way to public attention.

Baffert

Bob Baffert. Google image.
Bob Baffert. Google image.

A very unsettling example is the incident of the mysterious “sudden deaths” due to cardiovascular / pulmonary failures of 7 racehorses over the course of several months (November 4, 2011 through March 14, 2013). [1], [2]

The final necropsy report performed by none other than the corrupt California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) was inconclusive. Nothing surprizing there. Hell, it’s California’s racing sweetheart Teflon Bob who can do no wrong.

Two of those deaths were linked to rat poisoning.

Inexplicably the rodenticide found in the toxicology testing – diphacinone – was inconsistent with the rodenticide used in the barn yet considered insignificant and without suspicion by the CHRB report.

Of course there were the usual myriad routine prescription medications and supplements dispensed by veterinarians in the Baffert barn (e.g. Clenbuterol, Adequan, Methocarbamol, Lasix, Phenylbutazone, Adjunct Bleeder medications, an assortment of vitamins etc.) however the single most perplexing medication that stands out is Baffert’s persistent use of Thyro-L (levothyroxine), a medication to treat hypothyroidism, in all of his horses.

Repeat, all of his horses.

Thyroxine is legal but a known performance enhancer and has the ability to alter the results of many laboratory tests.

Baffert, in conflict with the policy of the American Association of Equine Practitioners ordered the veterinarians to prescribe it. But that’s okay. It’s the CHRB’s beloved Bob.

And then to have the unmitigated presumptuousness to allege that he was using it to “build up” his horses. Who is this guy kidding?

It is used for the exact opposite reason – to assist weight loss – a performance-enhancing tool. Pure and simple doping. Once Baffert discontinued its use miraculously there were no more “sudden deaths”. Verdict: Golden Boy Bob cleared of any wrong-doing. Again.

There are lots of other examples as well including the morphine incident at Hollywood Park. This is the one in which Baffert coerced a groom to lie for him.

The sad fact that Baffert hails from California and has close ties to all those instrumental in running the CHRB, all the important people such as Chuck Winner, Bo Derek (who reportedly has now moved on), Dr. Rick Arthur, and other prominent influencers such as Zayat Racing Stables to which American Pharoah belongs(ed), makes the entire spectacle that much more macabre.

And what about the fact that Zayat was under investigation for placing large bets allegedly manipulating the outcome of races in conjunction with Baffert? What became of this?

Yet people are fawning all over Baffert (and Zayat) these days because of the Triple Crown, stating what a superb trainer, how he’s mellowed, how responsible and accountable, how he loves his horses, how he brings greatness to the sport, what a god we have here in our midst. Hurl.

Really, how on earth can anyone be so gullible to think that things have changed just because horse racing has a Triple Crown winner?

Asmussen

Steve Asmussen. Photo: Jabin Botsford for The New York Times.
Steve Asmussen. Photo: Jabin Botsford for The New York Times.

In three words – “The PETA Video”.

Just like Baffert 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. 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. [3]

Probably the most heart-wrenching part of the video was the treatment of the unfortunate colt Nehro, second in the 2011 Kentucky Derby, owned by Zayat Stables.

“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.” [4]

Asmussen fired Blasi after an 18-year association, later to be re-instated, and Zayat fired Asmussen and removed his 12 horses from Asmussen’s care. But where was Zayat when all of this was happening? Where the hell was he? If an owner fails to be accountable for their horses, simply put, they have no business owning them.

And of course, again just like Baffert, this isn’t an isolated case.

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. [5]

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.

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.

Yet in spite of all these infractions over the years his devoted assistant Blasi assumed responsibility of Asmussen’s stables so that no horses missed a race. Not a penalty at all.*

Pletcher

Todd Pletcher. Google image.
Todd Pletcher. Google image.

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 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. The appeals court dismissed them all.

However 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 for this? 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.

And the rest?

This is just a snapshot of three of the most controversial trainers that represent the “sport of kings” in North America – all of them at the top of the game.

Story after story surfaces about these lying, cheating trainers who should be the flagship ambassadors of the racing industry but instead represent some of the worst offenders. 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.

Moreover it follows that if top-tier trainers are participating in this level of “legal” drugging, the competitive rational for trainers at all levels is to run with the herd. And the drug use does indeed percolate down through the murk of the racing industry.

If it sounds like I am accusing everyone in racing of these transgressions, I apologize, I am not. Undeniably there are many good people in racing who love and care deeply for their horses, abiding by their good conscience in doing what is right for the horses. These people are as frustrated as the public.

Part 3 of 3 tomorrow. Don’t miss it.


[1] https://tuesdayshorse.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/deadly-to-horses-the-baffert-effect-part-1/
[2] https://tuesdayshorse.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/deadly-to-horses-the-baffert-effect-part-2/
[3] https://tuesdayshorse.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/horse-racing-in-america-a-spectacle-of-liars-dopers-and-cheaters-part-2/
[4] http://m.utsandiego.com/news/2014/mar/28/horse-racing-steve-asmussen-peta/
[5] See at 3.

* Neither the New York or Kentucky state horse racing boards, who agreed to review the Peta video, found anything amiss or worth pursuing in relation to what is out and out abuse of the horses involved, including the tortured and dead Nehro — unless of course you work for the U.S. horse racing industry. —Editor.

Main Photo: Getty Images
American Pharoah surges to victory under a strong whip in the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of his successful bid to win the Triple Crown. Chief steward Barbara Borden says they reviewed the jockey’s whipping of the horse — a reported 32 times in the drive to the finish line — and didn’t see anything that caught their attention. “There isn’t a limit in Kentucky as to how many times a jockey can hit a horse during a race”, pointed out Borden. Naturally. Who would be a horse in Kentucky? Source.

9 thoughts on “Despite a Triple Crown all that glitters is not gold in American horse racing (Part 2)”

  1. As long as the loving owners continue to pursue a “win at any cost” racing program, nothing will change. It has taken years for professional sports to outlaw PEDs…even when humans were dying. It’s time for some regulatory body to step in and stop this criminal abuse. The Province of Quebec has started the process. Hopefully other jurisdictions will follow.

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  2. Excellent and accurate…with one exception – there are NOT “many good people” in racing that LOVE their horses…name one and then also let the reader know if the one you name does any of the following with or to their “loved” horses:
    – races them before the age of full skeletal maturity – 7.
    – keeps them isolated and stalled approximately 23 hours/day
    – gives them one and/or any of the 26 legal drugs
    – puts them in claiming races
    – sells them for stud or as a broodmare when their racing days are over
    – does not take them HOME – to their OWN farm – for permanent retirement when their racing days are over but instead, sells them/gives them away

    No one does one or any of the above if they LOVE their horse.

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  3. This article is right on. As a former Owner/Trainer I can validate the 3 musketeers mentioned here as drug violating, and corrupt Trainers whom the industry and racetracks bow down to. They get the red carpet rolled out for them at any racetrack they go to while the majority of Trainers get dirt on their face especially if their honest and play by the rules.
    Another thing you all should know: if any other Trainer was found guilty of these drug violations they would have their license suspended, but these 3 get Carte Blanche to continue! So one must conclude that members of the Racing Commissions are cohorts to these connections and are somehow benefitting from their operations. It’s the only thing to conclude. In the ms time, these Trainers break down horses at alarming rates, and all facts point to the use of drugs and that their getting away with it. There is no doubt in mind that the tentacles of corruption extend into the drug testing process whether it’s in the test barn or at the lab. Sadly, the racehorse pays with their life. I know one thing for sure all 3 of these Trainers belong in the Racing Hall of Shame.

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  4. The UC Davis Veterinary School makes a percentage of the paramututal handle as part of its annual income. The conflict of interest to end the use of horses in gambling venues is far reaching and ethically atrocious.

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  5. That’s what i have said few times all anyone has to do is watch a race with all of the whips flying beating the horses without mercy every step of the way. These people don think anything about it because they see it happen in every race. To their way of thinking the horses need the constant beating to run but when you see horses playing with each other out in the pasture kicking up their heels and trying to outrun each other they don’t need to be whipped give them their head and they will run because they like too. What needs to be done is ban the whips and then see who wins.

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  6. I suppose if all these abuses are taking place, eventually the FBI should get involved in investigating, since the internal investigators of the Thoroughbred Industry are not getting to the bottom of this. If the Cardinals and FIFA are being investigated, I don’t see why the Thoroughbred Industry is exempt from wrong behavior.

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    1. Rodrigo, the problem as i see it is that the horseracing industry is self regulated. “Investigating” themselves is a farce – NEHRO Asmussen Blasi case is indisputable evidence of this. It’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. In my view it is a totally unacceptable situation. I couldn’t agree with you more!

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  7. So who can possibly come down on the racing boards as well as the owners/trainers of these innocent, abused equines?

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    1. The Government derives a significant amount of money from the horseracing industry and it is my view that it has a moral and legal obligation to take the appropriate action.

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