Here it is, probably my favorite time of the year — Kentucky Derby season — and what have we got? A horse-racing scandal.
Maybe you’ve heard about it in passing or read about it in detail:
An investigator for PETA — People for Ethical Treatment of Animals — managed to get a job with one of thoroughbred racing’s leading trainers, Steve Asmussen, and she used a hidden camera and microphone to get some incredibly damning, inside information about horse racing in the spring and summer of 2013.
It’s a shocking and eye-opening expose, even for me. I’ve been a fan for more than 40 years and have heard about a lot of funny business around the track, including an occasional substitution scam, when a “ringer” horse is substituted for one of lesser quality. That happened one Derby Day many years ago, in the race immediately after the Derby, when there’s lots of money in the betting pool and perhaps less attention paid to detail by the track employees whose job it is to check the horses’ identities (by “tattoos” on the inside of the upper lip) before the race.
But, back to the video. It runs 9 minutes, 29 seconds, and even if you don’t care about horse racing, I think you’ll find it fascinating.
The investigator got Asmussen’s chief assistant trainer, Scott Blasi — a particularly foul-mouthed son of a bitch — to open up about how horses in the Asmussen stable were routinely run with chronic, painful injuries.
Also, a veterinarian talks about horses routinely being administered an anti-bleeding medication that enhances performance, and Blasi talks about a jockey using a “buzzer,” a battery-operated device that is designed to shock horses to make them run faster.
At one point in the video, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens and Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lucas are heard laughing and joking about their experiences with buzzers. Stevens recounts having a buzzer one time, apparently many years ago, when “I shocked the shit out of myself.”
The listeners laugh, and then Lucas pipes up, saying: “Well, we used to go behind the gate at Ruidoso (a track in New Mexico), and it was just like a full-blown orchestra. Zzz. Zzz. Zzz. Zzz. Everybody had one. Everybody had one.”
I mentioned that Blasi is particularly foul mouthed. One of the opening scenes shows Blasi attending to a horse and saying,
“They’ll fucking break your fucking heart every fucking day, these cocksuckers. There’s always something wrong with them.”
It’s clear, as the video progresses, that Blasi didn’t mean the horses broke his heart because they were suffering; it was because it made it harder to get them to the track and win races and money.
One of the horses that Blasi worked with was Nehro, who finished second in the 2013 Kentucky Derby, behind Animal Kingdom, who came from last place to win.
In the video, Blasi and a farrier — a hoof-care specialist — are discussing Nehro’s chronic, and extremely painful, foot problems. Nehro’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, said earlier this week that he didn’t know Nehro had foot problems until he saw the PETA video, and he immediately pulled all his horses from Asmussen’s barn. (Probably coincidentally, Nehro died of colic not long after the taping.)
Other fallout from the PETA expose includes:
** Asmussen fired Blasi.
** The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame effectively removed Asmussen’s name from the ballot for consideration of election to the Hall of Fame.
** The New York State Gaming Commission and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission are launching investigations into the situation. (The investigator did the taping at Churchill Downs in Kentucky and Saratoga Race Track in New York.)
More fallout is sure to be on the way. For example, Asmussen trains one of this year’s top-rated Derby contenders, Tapiture. If Tapiture makes it into the race, I can’t wait to see how the 150,000 fans greet Asmussen as he walks his horse on the track from the barn to the paddock.
Also, before returning to riding a year or two ago after a brief retirement, Gary Stevens had found a sweet spot as a horse-racing commentator on national TV. I would think his story about how he “shocked the shit out of myself” will mark the end of his TV gig.
This is all very distressing and disturbing to me because I love the sport and would love to think it’s run cleanly, for the most part. The PETA expose casts serious doubt on that tenuous premise, however, and makes me wonder how dirty the game might be from top to bottom.
It also gives me pause about the prospect of betting on races, even the Derby, which brings the best 3-year-olds together on the first Saturday of May.
Horse racing has already become a marginal sport, much like boxing, and this isn’t going to help revive it. Nevertheless, I’ll be at Churchill on May 3, wearing my most colorful coat and tie and singing “My Old Kentucky Home” with a tear and my eye. (I am a born-and-bred Louisvillian, you know.)
But I’ll also be booing Steve Asmussen as loud as I can…if he has the guts to show his face.