The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission concluded there was no evidence to substantiate claims by PETA that either Steve Asmussen or Scott Blasi “maintained horses in their care in poor physical condition” or subjected any horse to “cruel or injurious mistreatment,” abuse or neglect. The investigation followed a video produced by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, reports by Joe Drape in The New York Times, and a complaint filed with the Commission by PETA.
The seven and one-half minute video was released last March. It was a disturbing account depicting dead horses and multiple injections being administered to horses. The “star” of the video was Asmussen’s assistant trainer Scott Blasi whose constant use of a common expletive in its various forms as a noun, verb, adjective and adverb added to the overall shock value of the clip. PETA claimed it had seven hours of video and a 285-page “report” that were not released publicly.
The KHRC subpoenaed the additional evidence PETA claimed to have, but the advocacy group refused to cooperate. Nonetheless, the KHRC examined the claims made by PETA and concluded not only that the claims lacked credibility, but that PETA “extensively edited” the video, overdubbed audio, and “presented conversations out of context and contrary to the substance of the conversation as a whole.” PETA’s undercover investigator who worked for several months in Asmussen’s barns was also determined to lack credibility.
The Commission’s findings were not unexpected. As disturbing as the video was, it became clear after several viewings that there was no actual evidence of mistreatment of horses. Similarly, none of the numerous complaints PETA filed with a myriad of federal, state and local government agencies contained evidence that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that either Asmussen or Blasi were mistreating their horses.
Having said that, there are questionable aspects of the KHRC decision. The most significant was the cavalier dismissal of claims that Asmussen was misusing the prescription drug commonly known as thyroxine. Thyroxine is a medication with legitimate therapeutic purposes, but also one that has potentially serious side effects. It was suspected of being a factor – if not the cause – of several sudden deaths experienced by Bob Baffert’s barn a couple of years ago. When he stopped the routine administration of the drug, the unexplained deaths also stopped. Asmussen himself admitted that he “fed” thyroxine in an interview following the PETA claims.
Rather than address the merits of use of the drug – which Asmussen acknowledged – the KHRC relied instead on questionable statements by a veterinarian who stated that he recommends it for every horse because it improves the quality of its coat, and has been doing it for 35 years. It is my understanding that is not the purpose of the medication, yet the KHRC concluded that if it is “prescribed for a specific patient,” it is not a violation of the rules.
This conclusion, however, skirts one of the more substantial complaints about the industry’s use of drugs. Rather than administering drugs to address a diagnosed condition, the perception is that far too many trainers use drugs for performance-enhancing reasons – or worse, masking injuries. Both Baffert and Asmussen admitted using this particular medication for a reason having nothing to do with treating a diagnosed condition. The Commission should have taken a more forceful stand on this issue.
The other surprising aspect of the Commission’s decision was the inclusion of instant messages exchanged between Blasi and the PETA undercover investigator – 43 pages of such messages. Both Blasi and the investigator acknowledged a sexual relationship, and the KHRC concluded this affected her credibility. Even if that conclusion is warranted, there is something creepy about including the sort of personal material that has little, if any, probative value.