As Kentucky Derby approaches, racing industry’s portrayal of Steve Asmussen as a rogue trainer ignores widespread issues


Trainer Steve Asmussen, with Tapiture before the Arkansas Derby on April 12, has been encouraged to stay away from the Kentucky Derby. (Danny Johnston/Associated Press)
Andrew Beyer
Columnist April 27

In a sport amply populated by rogues and cheaters, trainer Steve Asmussen has become Public Enemy No. 1. He has shamed thoroughbred racing so badly that the chairman of the Jockey Club, Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, declared that there is “a dark cloud hovering over our sport” and that Asmussen ought to stay away from the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks.

Asmussen is expected to ignore that suggestion by saddling his brilliant filly Untapable for Friday’s Oaks and his colt Tapiture for Saturday’s Derby. Phipps and other leaders of the industry surely shudder at the thought of Asmussen hoisting a trophy as a nationwide television audience watches.

Andrew Beyer has been The Washington Post’s horse racing columnist since 1978 and is considered one of the leading experts on the subject. View Archive

The controversy involving Asmussen, which has been the talk of the racing world for the past month, stems from recordings made secretly at his barn by an “undercover agent” for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. They were edited to form a 91 / 2-minute video and reported by the New York Times as part of its campaign against cruelty to racehorses.

The charges were a familiar PETA theme: Unscrupulous trainers regularly campaign infirm animals by pumping them full of painkillers and performance-enhancing drugs. Some in the racing community feel those reports distorted facts to put thoroughbred racing in the worst possible light. But all PETA had to do to blacken the sport in this case was to put a hidden microphone in the vicinity of Scott Blasi, Asmussen’s top assistant.

In the video, Blasi profanely talks about the indiscriminate use of medications in the Asmussen operation. He talks about jockeys’ use of “buzzers” to give horses an electrical shock and make them run faster. He talks about the pain-deadening procedure known as shock-wave therapy.

Blasi’s coarseness had a visceral effect on almost everyone who watched the video; leaders of the sport responded with condemnations and calls for reform.

Although Asmussen never appeared on camera and fired Blasi after the video became public, everyone understood this was Asmussen’s operation. Asmussen is the No. 2 race-winning trainer of all time. He trained champions Curlin and Rachel Alexandra. His name was on the ballot in this year’s voting for the Racing Hall of Fame, and he was considered a shoo-in. But the video thoroughly tarnished his reputation. A few days after it became public, the Hall of Fame announced it had “tabled” Asmussen’s nomination “in the interests of the institution and the sport.”

Asmussen has numerous drug penalties on his record, the most serious was a six-month suspension in 2006 for use of mepivacaine, a local anesthetic than can be used to block pain in an animal’s leg. The majority of his misdeeds have been garden-variety infractions, usually when a horse tests above the permitted threshold for a legal medication. His horses rarely display the kind of inexplicable, sudden improvement that raises suspicions of powerful illegal drugs.

He is not a popular figure in the sport; unlike media-savvy trainers such as Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher, Asmussen shuns the spotlight. But he is respected. Amid the current storm, trainer Rusty Arnold wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Racing Form and declared, “There is no better caretaker of horses than he is. Period.”

Neither Asmussen nor most members of his profession resemble PETA’s caricature of trainers as heartless and ruthless abusers of thoroughbreds. Its video was an artful piece of propaganda, whose sensational aspects obscured the fact that there was no proof Asmussen and Blasi were doing anything illegal to their horses.

But when PETA declared matter-of-factly that Asmussen gave his horses “a steady diet of drug cocktails,” the organization hit upon the indefensible practice that the racing industry can’t dismiss as a lie or a distortion.

PETA cited Asmussen’s use of Thyrozine, a medication used to treat animals whose thyroid glands do not produce enough hormones. Asmussen’s horses were not tested for thyroid disorders, yet they all got the drug as a matter of routine. “It makes ’em feel good,” Blasi said in the video. (In fact, it speeds up their metabolism.)

In this respect, the use of Thyrozine is similar to the most common racetrack drug, Lasix. The diuretic was originally legalized to treat horses who bleed during physical exertion, but Asmussen gives it to every horse, presumably to boost the performance of the non-bleeders, too.

And so does almost every other trainer in the United States. Every horse in the Kentucky Derby field is a regular Lasix user. The Asmussen stable’s regular use of drugs — even when there is no medical need for them — is commonplace in the sport.

When seven horses in Baffert’s barn suffered sudden deaths over a two-year period, California officials investigated and found that no illegal substances were responsible. But all of Baffert’s horses had been routinely treated with a thyroid medication, Thyro-L. Baffert subsequently dropped this regimen.

When a New York task force investigated a wave of fatalities in races at Aqueduct in 2011-12, the breakdown of a horse named Coronado Heights attracted special attention, partly because Pletcher trained him. In the last 25 days of his life, Coronado Heights had received 24 injections — all of them legal — which Pletcher described as “standard practice” in his barn. The task force’s report said all of these drugs might have masked signs of lameness that would have been a warning sign before Coronado Heights’ death.

It is wrong to characterize Asmussen as a bad apple. It is unfair to single him out for stigmatization. And it was thoroughly disingenuous for Phipps to say, “His presence and participation [in the Kentucky Oaks and Derby] would indicate that it’s just ‘business as usual’ in the thoroughbred industry.”

Through the industry, the indiscriminate use of drugs is business as usual.

For more by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/beyer.

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