Cohen: The ugly truth about horse racing

at Churchill Downs Wednesday, May 4, 2011, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Cross-posted from The Atlantic


There are essentially three types of people in horse racing.

There are the crooks who dangerously drug or otherwise abuse their horses, or who countenance such conduct from their agents, and who then dare the industry to come catch them. Then there are the dupes who labor under the fantasy that the sport is broadly fair and honest. And there are those masses in the middle—neither naive nor cheaters but rather honorable souls—who know the industry is more crooked than it ought to be but who still don’t do all they can to fix the problem.

The first category, the cheaters, are a small, feral minority still large enough to stain the integrity of the sport for everyone else. The second category, the innocents, also a small group, are more or less hopeless—if they haven’t figured out by now they are being wronged they likely never will. So it is from the third category of horsemen and horsewomen, the far-too-silent majority, the good people who see wrong but won’t give their all to right it, where serious reform must come if the sport is to survive and thrive.

And that’s why exposés about the abuse of racehorses, like the one posted last week by Joe Drape in The New York Times, are so important. They don’t aim to offer salvation to the unholy or to rouse the ignorant from their slumber. They speak directly instead to the many good and honest people in horse racing whose consciences are still in play. And they say to those respectable people, in essence, “You are fooling only yourself if you think the whole world isn’t aware of and repulsed by what nasty business you allow to go on inside your sport.”

. . . . the simple headline of the Times’ piece [Peta accuses two trainers of cruelty] crystallizes the story in a way that resonates with the outside world. Cruelty. No one beyond the world of horse racing cares if industry insiders cheat each other. But plenty of people beyond the world of horse racing cares if the animals at the heart of the sport are treated cruelly. Horse racing simply cannot survive if the general public believes racehorses are abused or neglected. I have no idea if Asmussen and Blasi are guilty of anything and I accuse them here of nothing. My point is that it doesn’t really matter. The whole industry is guilty of letting it get this far. Read full article by Cohen >>

In case you missed the video, here it is again.

Twinspired works out at Churchill Hill Downs in preparation for the 2011 Kentucky Derby. Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel/AP.

Accused horse trainer Asmussen sacks assistant Blasi; industry responds

Record-smashing Kentucky Oaks (GI) winner Rachel Alexandra is led to a waiting van by assistant trainer Scott Blasi. Image: Churchill Downs website.

The word over the weekend concerning Thoroughbred racehorse trainer Steve Asmussen is he has sacked his assistant Scott Blasi. Blasi is the inconvenient star of the Peta undercover investigation that leaves he and and Asmussen accused of horse cruelty, among other things. “Among other things” appears to be on most people’s minds however.

Our concern of course is for the horses. Per usual the horses are barely mentioned in the write ups. And typical of American horse racing they are trying to deflect their problems onto PETA.

Here’s a sampling from ESPN citing the Blood-Horse as their source:

The situation erupted March 20 after the New York Times, under the condition it not name the undercover investigator, published a story on the PETA allegations. The woman, who is said to have gotten to know Blasi with the intention of infiltrating the stable at Churchill Downs and Saratoga Race Course for four months in 2013, videotaped barn activity and conversations without the knowledge of Asmussen or Blasi.

“Though PETA reportedly has hours of videotape, it has posted only a nine-plus-minute clip on its website. Called disturbing by many in the racing industry, the video doesn’t show illegal equine drug activity but does indicate potential violations involving the hiring of workers.

No mention of horse cruelty, which was horrible to witness. Not so for American horse racing however.

There’s more about PETA in this blurb:

PETA has stated it isn’t against horse racing, though over the years it has been quick to take advantage of various incidents such as breakdowns to claim racehorses are mistreated and abused.”

Oh, a brief mention of horse cruelty but in this case, but only when they are quoting PETA.[1]

In the meantime, the allegations against Asmussen and Blasi from the PETA investigation are being investigated by horse racing itself. We know how that will turn out. Like it always does. Nothing of any substance is done against the perpetrators and it’s business as usual. So who cares what they find or don’t find, do or don’t do? Well we should and we do.

I don’t think there is a whole they can do to wriggle out of this. If it weren’t for the cruelties carried out against the equine victims in cases like these, I would enjoy watching them squirm while they try.

If you want the lowdown on horse racing’s leaders kneejerk response to all of this is, see the Paulick Report [2]. Just about all the alphabets are represented. Get out your sick bag.


Racing’s biggest mistake was to continually discount the welfare of its horses and worry more about animal rights activists than the animals themselves. Unfortunately for all concerned, except heartless profiteers, racing chose to just do enough to manage public outrage including with lies. When Alex Waldrop swore in front of a massive media contingent that our race horses are Priority #1, following Eight Belles’s death, racing should have translated that lie into a huge red flag and wake-up call and turned it into reality. Instead it continues to prioritize power and money.” [3]

We hope that Peta’s investigation is a sincere move to expose what American racehorses endure and not simply a way to gain attention for themselves. If Peta allows horse racing to investigate this and subsequently do nothing, and no arrests are made, then we will have to assume the latter and not the former.

Must these horses withstand even more exploitation?
[3] same as [2]

Featured Image: Record-smashing Kentucky Oaks (GI) winner Rachel Alexandra is led to a waiting van by assistant trainer Scott Blasi to begin her journey from Churchill Downs to Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course for Saturday’s Preakness. Source,

Asmussen, the torture of racehorses and agonizing death of Nehro

Trainer Steve Asmussen at the Rail, Belmont Park, 2011. Image source: Flickr.

Thoroughbred trainers Steve Asmussen and Scott Blasi have been accused of cruelty to racehorses following an undercover investigation conducted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta). No surprise there.

I believe that more investigations of this type would unearth equally sinister horrors committed by American Thoroughbred horse trainers and their staff.

The shocking abuses exposed in the Peta video excerpt (see below) sickened me to the point that I had to stop watching.

Among the racehorses involved was Nehro.

In his New York Times article Joe Drape tells us:

On the tapes, Blasi was a profane narrator to the murky goings-on at American racetracks and was often heard bemoaning the lame horses in his barn.

On April 17, 2013, only four days after Nehro finished fifth in an Arkansas race, Blasi and his blacksmith, along with other members of the Asmussen staff, discussed the horse’s tender feet and their efforts to keep them on the racetrack. In the video, the blacksmith pointed to Nehro’s right leg and said that it did not have a pulse and that one barely registered in his left.[1]

Drape reveals more:

The horse was clearly uncomfortable as they poked at what they described as “a hole right through that sore right there.”

“His foot is a little bitty nub,” said the blacksmith, who was identified as “Dave” in the investigation.

On the recording, Blasi acknowledged how much Nehro hurt. Still, the horse continued to train. On the morning of last year’s Kentucky Derby, Nehro got sick on the backside of Churchill Downs. Asmussen later said that the horse died from colic in a van on the way to the hospital. [2]

Owner Ahmed Zayat kisses his favorite horse Nehro. Photo: ESPN.
Owner Ahmed Zayat kisses his favorite horse Nehro. Photo: ESPN.

Blood-Horse Staff reported this about the death of Nehro in May of 2013:

Nehro, Zayat Stables’ runner-up in the 2011 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), died of colic May 4 while en route to a clinic.

In training with Steve Asmussen at Churchill Downs, the 5-year-old horse fell ill the morning of May 4. According to the trainer, his condition “spiraled badly.”

“I can’t put into words how much respect I have for Nehro,” Asmussen said. ” He was loved by everyone around the barn. What a cool horse. Quality animal. Just a horrible, horrible deal.”

“I am deeply saddened,” owner Ahmed Zayat said. “Nehro was my favorite horse, whom I had a deep bond with. Everyone who came into contact with this horse loved him. He cannot be replaced, and I’m devastated.”


Along with his second by a three-quarters of a length to Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby, Nehro finished a close runner-up in the grade I Arkansas Derby, grade II Louisiana Derby, and grade III Pimlico Special Stakes.[3]

From the above you can trace the slow decline of Nehro. Now we know why. It makes one wonder what excuses the Asmussen camp made to Zayat about Nehro’s performances.

Eric Mitchell of the Blood-Horse writes:

Ahmed Zayat, the owner of Nehro—a bay colt [who] died of colic in 2013 after Blasi had admitted to gluing [his] hooves in the video—and 16 other horses in Asmussen’s care, is upset, telling Bossert: “I feel like I was duped. I never knew anything like this was going on.” [4]

Not to be over critical of Mr Zayat who clearly loved Nehro, but isn’t it the responsibility of owners to know what is going on with their horses.

Owners are often overlooked or excluded when trainers and occasionally veterinarians are charged with doping, abusing and causing the death of racehorses. For example, do owners ever take even a cursory look at their training bills and wonder why they are so high in the drug column, or ask about the types of treatments being given?

Zayat is on the alert now. According to an article for the Blood-Horse by Ron Mitchell and Ron LaMarra:

Prominent owner Zayat Stables has directed the scratching of all of the stable’s horses entered for this weekend’s races under the name of trainer Steve Asmussen. [5]

Rachel Alexandra after winning the Lady's Secret in 103 degree heat at Monmouth. She would race one more time. Photo: Flickr.
Rachel Alexandra after winning the Lady’s Secret in 103 degree heat at Monmouth. She would race one more time. Photo by Elaine K on Flickr.

Asmussen also trained Rachel Alexandra. This is an example of how Asmussen handled this beloved and exemplary mare. On July 24, 2010:

Rachel Alexandra did her job. She showed up Saturday, battled the oppressive heat, won the Lady’s Secret Stakes at Monmouth Park and even put a few extra fans in the seats. Despite temperatures that reached 103 degrees on the Jersey Shore, 12,859 turned out for the chance to see one of racing’s most popular horses.

Rachel Alexandra did not deliver the sort of dazzling performance many have come to expect. Nearly a year after she defeated males to win the Haskell Invitational here by six lengths, Rachel Alexandra needed some urging from jockey Calvin Borel to get past the recent allowance winner Queen Martha in the stretch to win the Lady’s Secret by three lengths.

They blamed the racecourse for not cancelling the race because they had lots of tee-shirts promised to paying fans. Incidentally, not far away Philadelphia Park and Delaware Park cancelled their programs because of the heat. [6]

The Lady’s Secret turned out to be Rachel Alexandra’s penultimate race. Her final race was at Saratoga on August 29, 2010 where she finished second in the Personal Ensign Stakes. Rachel was retired the following month on September 28, 2010. She was sent to the shed in 2011 to begin her career as a broodmare.

We rail against the trainers who sore Tennessee Walking Horses, torturing their forelegs and feet in order to accentuate their gait for competition. Witnesses say you can hear them crying and moaning, and some beaten to get them to their feet.

At long last, what goes on in a Thoroughbred racing training barn is now being exposed. But forget about horse racing looking into the Asmussen/Blasi allegations. Look how they handle doping and cheating. Asmussen and Blasi should be arrested, just like any other animal abuser. It makes you want to spew up.

There is something sinfully wrong in any culture that tolerates this type of brutish treatment of innocent animals for the purposes of entertainment or to win prizes and money.

Well, horse racing has taken a baby step in the right direction.

The New York Daily News reports that racing’s Hall of Fame has removed Steve Asumussen from the ballot since the Peta cruelty allegations were reported.

While they are at it, they ought to investigate some of the dopestrong trainers they have already enshrined there. No doubt they would find equally despicable behaviors among them. Do we really need to make a list of them? Here’s a hint. Start in California.


[2] Same as at 1.

A lust to win, an incentive to cheat: The stain on American Thoroughbred racing

137th Preakness Stakes (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Researched and Written by JANE ALLIN

Unlike some other organized sports in America, such as baseball, football and basketball, horse racing differs in several ways. Not only does it lack centralization in the form of a governing body to oversee regulatory policies and mandates, but it also does not provide its players with contractual salaries. Take for instance the average annual salaries for the following professional sport leagues in 2011[1]:

National Basketball Association (NBA) $5.15 million
Major League Baseball (MLB) $3.31 million
National Hockey League (NHL) $2.4 million
National Football League (NFL) $1.9 million

Indeed these are lucrative and rewarding salaries for something one loves to do.

A racehorse steps onto the track during training. Image by Clarence Alford.
It is the racehorse who is the athlete, the single entity that sustains the industry; an athlete who is owned and controlled by people. Too often the individuals who own and train these animals make profits central to the sport rather than the welfare of the horse. Image by Clarence Alford.

While it is true that these professional athletes must uphold the terms of their contracts in order to receive their dues, there is no similar guarantee in the sport of horse racing that profits of any kind will be had.

Moreover it is the racehorse who is the athlete, the single entity that sustains the industry; an athlete who is owned and controlled by people. And sadly, too often the individuals who own and train these animals make profits central to the sport rather than the welfare of the horse.

Horse racing is a game of ego and fame for those who race these magnificent creatures but it is also one fraught with uncertainty insofar as profiting from the game. Those wealthy enough to expend fortunes are unmistakably aware that it is certainly not a guaranteed profit-generating proposition but rather a celebrated privilege within effortless grasp from a financial perspective. In contrast, others will struggle and some will lose great fortunes albeit comparatively minor relative to the deep pockets of the truly wealthy. Vanity and renown however have no monetary boundaries.

Nonetheless, for those who either strive to emulate the rich or simply find horse racing exhilarating the potential for wealth and celebrity is equally mesmerizing if not more so. Indeed the prospect of owning and racing a horse instills passion and euphoria parallel to none for some individuals. And that is perfectly understandable. There is nothing more awe-inspiring than gazing upon these creatures pre-race, the thunder out of the gates, nostrils flaring, ears perked with a determination that defies defeat.

137th Preakness Stakes (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Baltimore, MD – May 19: The field makes their way toward turn one in the 137th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 19, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

But passion overcomes sensibility whether it is related to ego, money or fame and in the end it can overshadow accountability. This is particularly so in the case of recouping losses and maintaining a positive bank account. For the multi-millionaires and billionaires perhaps it is insignificant but for those outside of this realm even owning a single horse can make or break you. Thoroughbred ownership and racing is more a hobby than a business venture.

Consider the cost of purchasing and maintaining a race horse and all without the guarantee of making even a dime.

The annual expenditure to properly care for and race a Thoroughbred is considerable. On average in the United States and Canada, a Thoroughbred costs about $40,000 a year to keep in training at major race tracks. This does include the cost of purchasing the horses, whether it be a million dollars or only several thousand. The only difference is that costlier “select” Thoroughbreds race for a much higher purse, yet the bottom line is that expenses are the same despite the level, at least at the major tracks.

What’s more is that anecdotal observation has estimated that the chance of making even one dollar profit after all expenses is about 15% regardless of the performance level of the horse, whether a Kentucky Derby contender or one inexpensively acquired via a claiming race.[2] And, of course, this is something the bloodstock agent will fail to disclose.

As a general overview, a breakdown of the typical distribution of purses earned at the racetrack follows. This may vary somewhat from state to state and race to race and is much more complicated in reality but will serve as example.

  • First place, 60% of the total purse
  • Second place, 20% of the total purse
  • Third place, 10% of the total purse
  • Fourth place, 6% of the total purse and;
  • Fifth place, 4% of the total purse

Per industry standards, trainers receive ten percent (10%) of any purse earnings. Jockeys receive ten percent (10%) of a winning purse, five percent (5%) of purses earned for finishing second or third, and a flat fee of $60 to $100 per mount for finishing off the board.[3]

So obviously the better the horse does the better the payout to the owner, trainer and jockey.

What else becomes very clear is that the owner takes home the bulk of the winnings. This has a direct and profound effect on the earnings of the trainer and the jockey. In some cases such as large purse Graded Stakes (> $75,000) — in particular a race akin to the prestigious Kentucky Derby — this is a definite windfall for the trainer and jockey. At the other end of the spectrum and a world away from these celebrated races the pot at the end of the rainbow is radically much leaner.

A basic comparison of the payouts for this year’s Kentucky Derby winners and for example an allowance race where the total purse is only $30,000 will serve to underscore the disparities and sometimes grim realities of what those in the racing industry face in the name of competition and the desire to win.

For simplicity, let’s assume that the “typical” payout guidelines apply (i.e. prize money distribution for the Kentucky Derby not exactly as shown, only hypothetical).

Total Purse $2,180,000 $30,000
Total Payout (60% of total purse) $1,308,000 $18,000
Owner (80% of total payout) $1,046,400 $14,400
Trainer (10% of total payout) $130,000 $1,800
Jockey (10% of total payout) $130,000 $1,800

Clearly not everyone makes a pretty profit when it comes to horse racing and these figures are only for the winners. Those who fail to take the blue ribbon per se stand to make far less profit particularly those who do not place within the top five. Many of these individuals will take home nothing apart from the exhilaration of the race and the subsequent let down of defeat.

Is it any wonder why cheating exists especially given the use of race day drugs and lax regulation of the horse racing industry in America? Not every race is the Kentucky Derby, nor is every race a Stakes race, nor is everyone autonomous from a wealth perspective. Reality is that horse racing is a thankless business for some and often one without rewards.

Getting to the top can also be a precarious experience particularly for the trainers and jockeys as well as those owners who get by on pin money. For those at the bottom if you aren’t effective and you don’t win races you simply can’t compete. And in reality it is not difficult to understand why people who make their careers in horse racing would use whatever advantage they possibly could. Why? Because everyone else is doing it.

Above all in today’s American horse racing atmosphere it is the ubiquity of drugs and other medications that plague the industry and more often than not it is the trainer at the center of the controversy. With the prospect of a Triple Crown winner this year after 33 years of drought the media is abuzz with the prevailing drug culture and its stain on the American industry.

Before we delve into that, let’s consider why and how this culture of drug obsession has evolved.

The life of a trainer is not easy. Typically trainers are not hired on to a payroll or such but rather they are self-reliant contractors who establish client-trainer business relationships with horse owners.[4] Like jockeys, thoroughbred trainer’s salaries vary and depend on the performance of the horse, purse size, race and track. Moreover, the trainer has to supplement their income through a percentage of a horse’s earnings.

In 2010 the day rate for a trainer in Kentucky was on average about $82 per day per horse meaning that each month the trainer would gross about $2550 per horse.[5] However a trainer is also subject to significant costs involved in training a horse; payments to grooms and exercise riders, feed, straw for bedding, saddles and other equipment which in 2010 approximated $65 per day.[6]

If one does the math this means that over the course of a month the net payout to the trainer after expenses per horse is about $525 per horse, a far cry from $2550 or a meager $6300 a year apart from any purse money that is garnered. The bottom line is that the need to win races is paramount to surviving as a trainer. Of course the more experienced and successful a trainer is the more they can charge for their day rate. Obviously the more horses in their stable the greater their income will be. Nonetheless winning is the key to the top.

This brings us to the difference between the average trainer and one that has made it to the Graded Stakes echelon. There is a huge disparity between these two classes and very few ever have a glimpse of races such as the Kentucky Derby. However, many of the so-called top notch trainers have at one time been at the bottom rung of the ladder. How did they make it to the top? This is an unsettling question.

Graham Motion holding 2011 Kentucky Derby trophy aloft. Michael Conroy/Associated Press.
Trainer Graham Motion holds aloft the trophy for winning the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom. Graham is one of two top-earning trainers not cited for a single drug violation, the other being Christope Clement. Michael Conroy/Associated Press.

One need only look at a list of the frequency of drug violations for horses of the 20 top-earning trainers in the United States.[7] Only two on this list are without sin – Christophe Clement and Graham Motion. Many of the others are all too well known for their clandestine affair with performance-enhancing drugs. One need only mention names like Ness, Dutrow, Baffert, O’Neill. You get the picture.

The latter individuals have obviously fallen prey to the lust to win fueled by the irresistible incentive to cheat at all costs – costs for which they pay no price – rather it is the horse who inherits this burden. But this lust is aberrant and omnipresent in the racing industry and without boundaries. Despite the fact that high-profile races such as those that comprise the Triple Crown attract the most attention the substance of racing in America is at the lower tier level.

It is here in the lower ranks where horses are more vulnerable due to permissive regulations and where cheating is, for the most part, more prevalent at these smaller venues. It is also here where trainers are struggling to reach that pinnacle. Yet even success at the track does not extinguish the relentless hunger to win that is the engine that drives the motivation to cheat.

“The failure of regulators to stop that cheating is reflected in the numbers. Since 2009, records show, trainers at United States tracks have been caught illegally drugging horses 3,800 times, a figure that vastly understates the problem because only a small percentage of horses are actually tested.”[8]

It is unlikely that cheating in horse racing is apt to go away. There is money to be had, however intangible that may be to some, and people are greedy. With the temptation to cheat ever present, the saying “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it” is most applicable to the current state of horse racing in America.

Then again, why not cheat?

Take for example the year 2007.

“When 2007 opened, the trainers of the three biggest stables in the nation all were serving suspensions for medication infractions — Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen and Doug O’Neill. Pletcher and Asmussen would wind up winning two-thirds of the Triple Crown with their Rags to Riches (Belmont) and Curlin (Preakness), respectively.

And as Curlin prepares for a shot at the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic next month at Monmouth Park, two of his owners, William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham, Jr., sit in a prison cell awaiting an Oct. 15 trial date for allegedly milking $46 million out of clients that the embattled lawyers represented in a fen-phen diet drug lawsuit.”[9]

What a fine exemplar to set for the “Sport of Kings”. What a joke it all is, trainers and owners alike. And the blame cannot be exclusive to the trainer. Accountability is required on the part of the owner unfortunately however this is does not apply in the U.S.

“Other than a small loss of some respect, owners who hire trainers with a suspension-riddled past lose little by employing the otherwise unemployable. They pay no penalty when these employees veer off course and gain much when their wayward path leads to success on the racetrack. When the trainers get caught doing something they shouldn’t have done, it is business as usual for their horses. Life goes on uninterrupted as an alter ego fills in while his exiled boss vacations. Customers representing the horse’s future, namely breeders, and profiteers representing the horse’s past, namely bettors, watch idly. By the sin of omission, they’re complicit in the crimes being committed“.[10]

An emotional Kent Desormeaux hugs Big Brown after winning the Preakness. Google image.
An emotional Kent Desormeaux hugs Big Brown after winning the Preakness. Trainer Rick Dutrow caused a furor when admitting he administers the anabolic steroid Stanozolol to his horses, including Big Brown, on the 15th of every month. However, Dutrow stated to ESPN that Big Brown did not take the May 15th shot for the Belmont Stakes. Big Brown did not win the Triple Crown. He was pulled up. Stanozolol is banned in 10 states but not where the Triple Crown races are run. Google image.

Horse racing is an anomalous sport; one that seems to compensate those that seek any measures to secure an advantage whether legal or not. The drive to win is all-consuming it seems and without reproach.

Particularly disturbing is the unknown.

How many trainers and owners have walked away with the purse money, pockets bulging and egos glowing, all because an illegal substance went undetected? I shudder to think about those numbers.

Drugs, horse racing and ego – unquestionably a bad mix.

In the United States the lure of quick cash and the absence of rules banning race-day medication undermines both the integrity of the sport as well as those who participate in it. As it has been said before, the punishment does not fit the crime. Undeniably there is an urgent need for uniform rules and a centralized governing authority, a universal regime that would recognize trainers and owners as a single entity. Separating the trainer from the owner simply allows this misguided sport to continue.

Sadly, as the industry currently exists, there really is no reason not to cheat apart from honesty and horsemanship. This speaks volumes for what was once the “Sport of Kings”.
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