That could have been the headline for Joe Drape’s piece in today’s New York Times, but the Times chose to go with “Seamy Side of a Sport: Prodding Horses With Shocks.”
In today’s article, Drape writes about the number of battery-related incidents throughout the country in which the authorities have taken disciplinary action: “since 1974 there have been nearly 300 instances” and “[i]n the 2000s alone, there have been 53 buzzer cases.” But the real attention-grabber is the allegation that Calvin Borel used a buzzer when working Super Saver before his win in the 2010 Kentucky Derby. There is no allegation that he used one during the race itself.
For those who may have forgotten, last week brought us a disturbing nine-minute video produced by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Drape’s initial report, all based upon a PETA undercover investigator working in the barn of trainer Steve Asmussen. Drape recounted a litany of alleged abuses, including that Asmussen and his long-time assistant Scott Blasi employed a jockey, Ricardo Santana Jr., who used a “machine” to shock horses. A machine is a devise that emits electrical current and is also described as a “battery,” “buzzer,” or if you wish to be bilingual, a “máquina.”
I was aware of the allegations regarding Super Saver last week when I wrote this piece about the PETA claims. PETA had provided me with a number of documents I requested, and the Super Saver part was in a complaint PETA filed with Louisville Metro Animal Services. It was not included in the PETA video, unlike clips of Gary Stevens and Wayne Lukas laughing about battery use. (Stevens has since acknowledged having used one 35 years ago when he was 16.)
But I was not willing to drag another name into this sordid mix based upon what PETA wrote in their complaint, particularly since I had serious reservations about the details. The copies of the documents PETA provided to me had many names redacted, including that of the rider using the buzzer on Super Saver, although it would not have been much of a stretch to assume it was Borel.
The source of the evidence against Borel was provided by – according to Drape – two Asmussen employees. Now I realize that track employees will move from one barn to another, but useful context by Drape would have been to point out that Asmussen did not train Super Saver – Todd Pletcher did.
One of the Asmussen employees was quoted in the PETA complaint as saying that Borel (presumably) used a buzzer “more than anybody.” It may come as a surprise to someone who has never been to a track or the backstretch that hyperbole – not to mention inaccurate information – is not exactly in short supply. Nonetheless, it was the evidence of their claim that caused my eyebrows to rise – and again, none of this is in the Drape piece but is from the PETA complaint.
Borel would supposedly use the buzzer coming off the final turn to get the horse to run closer to the rail – giving, of course, a whole new context to his nickname “Bo-rail.” If he did this twice during workouts, according to PETA’s complaint, then the horse would be apprehensive when it came to a race and Borel was trying to get the horse to drop down against the rail. I will leave for those considerably more knowledgeable whether having a scared horse heading for home is a good thing.
Then there is the detail that after the Derby, the witness saw Super Saver and that he had a “perfect strip of hide off his shoulder … [at perfect] rail height – straight line down the [expletive] horse.” Borel’s agent was quoted in Drape’s article denying the allegation, saying, “Why would a guy who’s broken 43 bones in his body run a horse into a fence at 35 miles per hour?” That certainly seems pretty compelling, but it does not really disprove the allegation.
But when you parse the words of the Asmussen employees, there is no actual allegation that Borel used a battery on Super Saver. It is the two employees “knowledge” of the jockey’s reputation that passes for evidence Borel used a battery. And one would think that a missing strip of the horse’s hide would have resulted in an inquiry from Pletcher, Kentucky officials or Pimlico officials.
Drape has apparently had more access to PETA’s materials than anyone else. One would think that as a journalist he has an obligation to provide an accounting of what that access has been, as well as what he has not been allowed to see. I am not one to reflexively blame the media for news I do not like, but Drape’s past performances of dropping negative horse racing articles during Derby week does call into question his objectivity. Even in today’s article he mentions two allegations of battery use that did not bear out upon examination. PETA, in the interest of full accountability, should be making all of their videos available. They may, however, be hoping to make a big splash themselves during Derby week which would explain why the Super Saver conversations have yet to be released.