Scott Blasi, the unwitting star of PETA’s famous nine-minute video that roiled the horse racing world in the spring, is back to work at Saratoga Race Course. Blasi had been “relieved of his duties” in the aftermath of the video and is now back working for trainer Steve Asmussen.
For those who may have forgotten, or wish they had, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals placed an undercover investigator in Asmussen’s barns at Churchill Downs and Saratoga. The video recorded Blasi’s working on horses, as well as comments by veterinarians candidly assessing the administration of Lasix. At one point, Blasi disparaged one of Asmussen’s top owners, Ahmed Zayat, who then removed his horses from the barn. Other prominent owners, notably Ron Winchell, who owns the filly Untapable as well as the Derby horse Tapiture, stuck with Asmussen. In addition to the video, PETA filed numerous complaints with varied federal, state – and even one municipal – agencies. To date, I am not aware of any of the agencies completing their review.
As dramatic and disturbing as the PETA video was, actual allegations – let alone evidence – of illegal behavior was thin. One of the few allegations that may have some weight was that the Asmussen barn hired undocumented workers. Another had to do with the use of a “buzzer,” a device to electrically shock a horse. While showing dead horses and numerous injections administered to horses created precisely the response for which PETA hoped, there was very little substance when it came to actual wrongdoing.
A substantial portion of the punch provided by the video was Blasi’s use of the King’s English. Someone else can go and count the number of times he used a common expletive as an adjective, adverb or verb, but it was plentiful. But if using expletives was a reason to lose a job, many of us, me included, would be out on the street. The common portrayal of Blasi as a horseman who did not care about the welfare of the horse is also an exaggeration. There were actually instances in which his colorful language masked the fact that he was expressing frustration with a horse’s condition and the inability to treat it. In one memorable sequence, a farrier recommended putting super glue in a horse’s hoof to deal with holes in the hoof. Blasi’s response – “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard” – seems just about right.
None of this is to say that Blasi or Asmussen are victims in their portrayal by PETA. It’s that Blasi does not deserve to take the full weight of problems in racing regarding the treatment of horses. I do not know either man, but I do not think their behavior is unique in the business. Whether Blasi returns to Asmussen’s barn or someone else’s, or never again works in the field, the problems that must be addressed are not affected.
Here are a few:
- Horses are routinely given drugs – legally – even though there is no documented need for the medication. Lasix is the most prominent example because it is permitted on race day, with one vet in the PETA video acknowledging it is a performance-enhancing drug. Just go through any race card at any track and count the number of entrants not being given the drug. You will not need a second hand. Thyroxine is another. In one interview Asmussen said he “feeds” the drug as if it is a nutritional supplemental and not a drug with potentially significant side effects. One of racing’s golden boys, Bob Baffert, only stopped giving it to all his horses on a daily basis when being investigated for a number of sudden deaths of horses in his care. Baffert did not even use a vet to administer it. Grooms routinely added it to feed tubs.
- Horses with musculo-skeletal issues continue to train, often with drugs, with no effort to conduct a diagnostic assessment. This isn’t PETA or The New York Times saying it. It was a common refrain by nationally-prominent veterinarians at the recent Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit conducted by the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation.
- There are significant questions regarding the care for horses once their racing careers are done. While the annual foal crop is now down to the low 20’s from a recent time when it was closer to 35,000, that is a large number of horses to care for once they are no longer compering. I recently attended a fund-raiser for a prominent after-care group in which they talked about the well-known horses on their farm. I have often thought this is an unusual selling point. Why is there an issue caring for a horse who earned hundreds-of-thousands of dollars for its owner? Why do those who did not share in the good times now need to contribute to feeding the horse? I candidly do not know the economics of such farms, but I do know there are not a sufficient number of such facilities nationally to care for each retired horse – let alone the number who do not make it through early training and have to be retired before making it to the winner’s circle.
So racing has notable issues that must be addressed in order to grow the sport. Let’s not assume Scott Blasi is the problem rather than simply perhaps an example of the problem.