Racing at Saratoga brings many of the nation’s best horses, trainers and jockeys to the Spa for a 40-day meet in a resort atmosphere. It also brings industry leaders who participate in the several seminars that take place. Last year the unifying theme may well have been drugs and the public’s perception of widespread abuse.
At one such session last year, trainer John Kimmel lambasted those who thought that mistreatment of horses was a problem, blaming it on - wait for it - the media. He challenged them to go to the backstretch to observe how well the horses are cared for. Little did he know that as he was speaking, someone was doing just that, armed with a video camera. This week, the work of the undercover investigator for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) became public courtesy of Joe Drape of The New York Times and PETA’s web site.
According to Drape’s piece, the investigator worked in Steve Asmussen’s barn at Churchill Downs and Saratoga for four months. It is clear no one was aware they were being recorded. PETA has filed complaints with ten federal and state agencies based on the investigation, but it is a nine-minute video that has the racing world abuzz. Among PETA’s allegations are the mistreatment of horses, the use of batteries to shock horses, administration of Lasix as a performance-enhancing drug, and numerous violations of employment laws.
Not surprisingly, given PETA’s orientation, the video is disturbing. The horses featured are either dead, being injected with something, or subjected to a painful examination. While any of those occurrences is a daily reality at a track somewhere, it is the words emanating from the humans that are most damning.
Scott Blasi, Asmussen’s long-time assistant trainer, is the star, if you will, of the production, in large part because of his seeming inability to complete a sentence without using a common seven-letter expletive. He is observed examining what appears to be the dreadful condition of 2011 Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro’s feet, describing the pain caused by extracorporeal shock wave therapy, joking about the use of a “battery” by one of the barn’s jockeys, explaining the mechanics of hiring undocumented workers, and identifying one of the stable’s owners as a double expletive. Interestingly, Asmussen’s lone speaking part in the film is a barely audible off-camera sentence about hiring undocumented workers. Blasi has been “relieved of his duties pending a review” according to bloodhorse.com.
The reaction to the video has been predictable - ranging from outrage to condemnation of PETA as a biased source. Indeed, the video was edited to less than 10 minutes from several hours of recordings, and there are portions that seem to have little purpose other than portraying horse racing in the most unflattering light possible. For example, Wayne Lukas and Gary Stevens are depicted laughing about the use of batteries, including an admission by Stevens that he once used one. It is not clear when he did, but the Lukas comment was obviously from a time over 30 years ago with no acknowledgement that he participated in it.
Similarly, Nehro’s death from colic is implicitly linked to what is portrayed as the continuous training of an injured horse, although there is no evidence that was the cause. I unfortunately know from personal experience that colic is a common, and sometimes fatal, condition that has a number of possible causes.
My initial reaction to the video was one of disgust. Then I watched it another half-dozen times and realized that while it is an artful piece of anti-racing propaganda, the actual evidence of wrongdoing is pretty thin. The most serious allegations are those dealing with the employment law violations. Then there is Blasi explaining how he will mask an injured horse by applying a covering gel the next time the state vet comes by before a race. Stevens, who is one of the most public faces of racing from his acting and roles as a commentator on broadcasts, clearly doesn’t help. Then there is the veterinarian describing Lasix as a performance-enhancing medication.
The video describes Lasix as a controversial medication and, of course, it is. It is also the only race-day medication permitted in every state. The frequent depiction of horses being injected is emotive, but there are a number of medications that can be administered legally to a race horse. The video does not claim that any of the numerous injections are illegal, although that assertion is made in some of the written complaints.
But supporters of racing are deluding themselves if they think portraying PETA as biased makes the problem go away. Let’s be honest. We know horses are often given numerous medications and injections, and we also know that, at least in some instances, there is no medical justification for the drugs. One of PETA’s allegations is that Asmussen’s staff gave Thyroxine to most, if not all, of the horses in the barn without need. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it is the same drug that Bob Baffert admitted giving to all his horses when California investigated the seven sudden and unexplained deaths of horses trained by him. Baffert, who often had the medication given by barn staff and not a veterinarian, did not even understand the effect of the drug.
We also know that an investigation into a spike in fatalities at Aqueduct in 2012 led to a report by a Task Force that made numerous and significant recommendations on the practice of veterinary medicine at race tracks and the tightening of standards for administering drugs. We know from a report in The New York Times that the nation’s leading trainer, Todd Pletcher, had one of his horses given 14 doses of drugs in the week before his fatal breakdown at Aqueduct. Pletcher acknowledged to the Task Force that this “pre-race medication program … was standard practice for all of the horses in his stable.”
The video is lurid, even if lacking in specifics. The ten complaints filed by PETA, however, provide more detail even if they do not create the same level of outrage. Six complaints deal with the wage and hour violations. The remaining complaints - with the possible exception of those relating to Nehro - may prove to be much more troubling for the industry as a whole.
PETA’s complaint to New York’s Gaming Commission makes two allegations. One had to do with Blasi’s knowledge that a jockey used by Asmussen’s stable used an electric shock device or “machine,” although PETA explicitly states it had no knowledge of when such a device was used.
The second part of the complaint concerns the administration of Lasix. PETA alleges that Lasix was given to all of Asmussen’s horses when they were scheduled to work or race, regardless of whether there was a need for the drug based on the horse having previously bled. One veterinarian was quoted as saying the drug was given because it is a “performance enhancer.” Additionally, there is an accusation that vets working for Asmussen would sign blank forms required by the state prior to administering Lasix. The complaint alleges that barn staff would then fill in the horse’s name prior to a work or race.
In addition to the complaint filed with the Gaming Commission, PETA also filed with the New York board that licenses veterinarians, claiming that two vets used by Asmussen improperly administered drugs without medical justification, including Lasix, Sucralfate and Thyroxine.
Whether or not Asmussen’s staff or veterinarians violated the Lasix regulations is a much less consequential question than whether either of the New York regulatory agencies - or their counterpart in Kentucky - uses its authority to conduct a more sweeping probe. It strains credulity to think that these practices are unique to Asmussen’s operation. Saturday’s card at Aqueduct had 76 horses entered by 48 trainers. How many of those 76 were to run with Lasix? All but two - both first time starters. Are we to assume that each of the 74 has a documented history by a veterinarian that it had bled during a race or workout - as required by New York’s regulations? I doubt there are many knowledgeable race trackers who would take a short price on that proposition.
An investigation into whether drugs are being administered as part of a therapeutic regimen to treat a specific condition, rather than to enhance performance, could go a long way in dispelling the impressions left by the PETA video. It would also bolster the arguments of some racing proponents that ours is an industry capable of self-regulation.
The racing industry is actually filled with numerous committed, knowledgeable and thoughtful people who truly care about the sport and the well-being of its equine and human participants. I got a chance to meet a number of them at those seminars in Saratoga last summer and was quite impressed. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about those who actually control the racing at major tracks. New York is run by inept political appointees, Churchill Downs seems preoccupied by how much money they can extract from the Kentucky Derby, and Santa Anita and Gulfstream are owned by Frank Stronach. When a NYRA Board meeting is obsessed by the quality of the service at the Aqueduct restaurant instead of a serious issue, it is clearly a group that simply does not get it.
The NYRA Board members always nod in unison when someone observes that the public’s perception of racing is ruined by the one bad apple using drugs illegally. Yet, we have Hall of Fame trainer Baffert acknowledging ignorance of the effects of a drug he gave to all his horses, and certain Hall of Fame trainer Pletcher administering a cornucopia of medications to a horse who then suffers a catastrophic breakdown. And Asmussen was on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot until the PETA story broke and the Hall removed his name from nomination.
The question for the racing industry, of course, is where do we go from here? Unfortunately, there seems to be two likely possibilities, although they are not mutually exclusive. One is that the continuing cascade of negative media attention will further erode the sport’s popularity. That one appears to be inevitable without some significant action. When The Atlantic runs with the PETA story - in a compelling piece by Andrew Cohen – you should know you are in trouble.
The other is that the PETA video, despite its obvious flaws, will become a powerful incentive for governmental action. There’s a reason for the old saw, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Already there is legislation in Congress to place the United States Anti-Doping Agency in an oversight role for racing. Federal prosecutors in Pennsylvania have brought criminal wire fraud charges against three trainers for either illegally administering drugs or simply possessing syringes and impermissible drugs. And now, ten government agencies will be investigating the actions of Asmussen, Blasi and their veterinarians.
Perhaps the most common proposal is for a national organization with a commissioner akin to what we have in other major sports. Charles Hayward, former head of NYRA and now the President of the new on-line publication Thoroughbred Racing Commentary, seems prescient in addressing this issue just over a week ago. For reasons that are distressingly compelling, he cites the major impediments to that happening here. Yet he does provide a possible solution in the experience in Britain with their racing authority.
I think Hayward is correct in saying that an all-encompassing organization that controls everything from marketing to licensing rights to drug regulations is too much to hope for right now. But a necessary and useful first step would be a consensus on medication policies with a national drug czar, even if his or her authority is limited initially to operating from a bully pulpit. If it is not one selected by the racing industry, it could well be one picked by the federal government.