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.

Kentucky horse racing regulators clear trainer Steve Asmussen of abuse allegations

Thoroughbred trainer Steve Asmussen leads Tapiture to the paddock before the Rebel Stakes. Asmussen has been accused of cruelty to race horses by PETA. Photo: Danny Johnston/AP.
PHOTO: DANNY JOHNSTON/AP
Thoroughbred trainer Steve Asmussen leads Tapiture to the paddock before the Rebel Stakes. Asmussen has been accused of cruelty to race horses by PETA.

Kentucky horse racing and horse racing in general in the U.S. should hang their heads in shame. But of course they will not. They are too callous and self-righteous.

U.S. horse racing have demonstrated once again they care absolutely nothing about the safety and welfare of the racehorses they use. Asmussen is just the tip of the iceberg of horse racing’s evildoing.

Think I am exaggerating or know nothing about horse racing. I was raised in it — in Kentucky. I also worked many years as a horse racing photographer. And I was married to an Assistant Trainer who worked in the U.S, England and Ireland.

When he was headhunted in England to work in the U.S., I told my husband he would hate the way racehorses are treated in the U.S. He thought I was exaggerating or being oversensitive. After 3 months he was ready to quit. After 6 months he did, and went back home continuing his career in Ireland until he retired.

Here’s part of the story, as reported by the Star Tribune:

    LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky regulators have cleared one of horse racing’s winningest trainers of abuse allegations made by an animal-rights group claiming it had videotape evidence that Steve Asmussen mistreated thoroughbreds in his care.

    The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission [KHRC] investigation found nothing to substantiate claims by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, commission Chairman Robert Beck said Thursday.

    Outside veterinarians asked by the commission to independently review PETA documents and video also found nothing to support the allegations, he said.

    Kentucky regulators also cleared Asmussen’s assistant trainer, Scott Blasi.

    “No evidence was found to substantiate PETA’s claims that Asmussen and Blasi maintained horses in their care in poor physical condition or subjected any horse to cruel or injurious mistreatment, abuse or neglect,” Beck said in a statement he read after the commission reconvened from closed session.

    “On the contrary, the investigation revealed that Asmussen-trained horses were well cared for as measured by such factors as incidence of injuries and KHRC veterinarian scratches.”

    PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo said the outcome of the months-long probe signaled that Kentucky’s racing commission is “uninterested in horse welfare.”

    “If there was nothing wrong in the documentation that PETA found, then something is very wrong with racing in Kentucky,” Guillermo said in a statement.

    “A responsible enforcement agency would have examined the mountains of evidence — including sore horses who were drugged rather than allowed to recover from strained muscles and ligaments and 3-year-old horses who were made sore every day of their lives — and concluded that significant wrongdoing occurred.”

Of course. If the Kentucky Racing Commission said they had found plenty wrong (and there was plenty) with how the horses the subject of the Asmussen investigation were treated, they would have exposed the industry to an avalanche of damaging exposure they can ill afford.

KHRC Chairman Robert Beck described their investigation as “exhaustive, spanning hundreds of hours of commission staff time to analyze the video and other information.” Seriously? And you saw nothing wrong. Nothing?

Self-serving horse racing regulators in Kentucky are clearly using Peta’s reputation to manipulate public opinion and justify their non findings.

Don’t get too comfortable. Your day of reckoning may not have arrived just yet, but it will.

“The wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine.” Count on it.

In the meantime, I have a good name for a Kentucky Thoroughbred racehorse. Liars’ Express.

Read full report >>

"Saving Baby" by Jo Anne Normile book cover.
“Saving Baby” by Jo Anne Normile book cover.

RECOMMENDED READING

Learn the truth about U.S. horse racing and its practices written by a woman who raised, owned and raced Thoroughbreds, who now devotes her life to helping them. The way author Jo Anne Normile has written her book “Saving Baby”, it is chock full of insights not only into racing, but into equine behavior and good animal husbandry. A must read and terrific gift for anyone interested in horses. No matter what you think you know, you will learn something.

Click the link below to buy it at Amazon. Kindle also available. Terrific gift idea.
Saving Baby

A portion of each and every sale provides funding for Saving Baby Equine Charity so readers actually help save horses’ lives with their purchase.

KHRC finds no smoking gun in Peta undercover sting of racehorse trainer Asmussen

Thoroughbred trainer Steve Asmussen leads Tapiture to the paddock before the Rebel Stakes. Asmussen has been accused of cruelty to race horses by PETA. Photo: Danny Johnston/AP.
PHOTO: DANNY JOHNSTON/AP
Thoroughbred trainer Steve Asmussen leads Tapiture to the paddock before the Rebel Stakes. Asmussen has been accused of cruelty to race horses by PETA.

I am not shocked. I am not the least little bit surprised. This is horse racing American style and it stinks to high heaven. You take your big carcasses of cheating and horse cruelty and sweep them under the proverbial rug.

Abusing drugs and cheating. That seems to be a common thread in too many modern day sports. But the athletes in these sports choose to be there and take the actions they take.

Horses are bred for it and may love to race, but they do not choose who owns and trains them.

Horses do not choose whether or not to push past ill considered breeding, injuries and pain to compete to the point of breakdown and death.

Horses do not choose whether or not to take potentially lethal cocktails of drugs or debilitating medical treatments in order to compete at any cost, to get an edge and cheat their fellow athletes.

This is what you can see in US horse racing with or without the help of Peta. But Peta chose to go undercover in an attempt to expose its extent. And they chose one of the biggest winning, money-making high profile trainers in US racing, Steve Asmussen. And they hit pay dirt.

The Blood-Horse reports:

Though People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has submitted a 10-page complaint and a 22-minute video to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission alleging animal abuse last year in trainer Steve Asmussen’s Churchill Downs stable, no smoking gun is evident in a review of the evidence.

That is not to say investigators won’t find rule violations stemming from the video and complaint that centers on the treatment of 2011 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) runner-up Nehro, but the video does not appear to offer any obvious violations.

Well, horse racing. If people in your industry can do what the Asmussen camp did to Nehro (just one example) and find no obvious violations — no smoking gun — your whole sick business needs to come to an end.

The Blood-Horse got the data they based their detailed article on via a Freedom of Information Act request. Read the entire article here. You may need to super size your barf bag to get through it.

Insofar as the Asmussen circus, the next stop is New York. Thoroughbred racing regulators there are also “investigating”. If Nasalgate is anything to go by, my expectations are equally low.

The mistake Peta likely made is handing over what they found to US horse racing authorities, thinking that it would jar the industry into taking some sort of action to clean itself up and protect the horses they use. So far, no sale.

So horse racing in America. Celebrate your Triple Crown if you get one. It is not a feel good story, should it happen. It will do nothing to put the rosy glow on your sick industry that you think it will.

In the meantime Kentucky, hang your heads in shame.

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
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 >>