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Archive for March, 2014

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.

blasi and asmussen

Blasi (left) and Asmussen

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.

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Kansas City’s “NextRail” advisory committee made a very smart move yesterday when it recommended cutting Brookside out of the next streetcar expansion area.

Personally, I would like to see the streetcar system extend through Brookside and at least as far south as 75th Street. And that might happen yet; it will just be well down the road.

As it is, Brookside opposition to extension along or near the beloved Trolley Trail is running extremely high, and that opposition easily could have skewered the overall expansion proposal.

Making 51st Street and Brookside Boulevard the southern terminus accomplishes another big thing: It keeps the expansion focused on utility, that is, moving the people who are most in need of transportation.

With Brookside dangling in the picture frame, the expansion had a — dare I say it? — touristy frou-frou dimension.

Brookside residents don’t need the streetcar like other parts of town need it. Even with colorful, state-of-the-art streetcars running along Main, Brookside and Wornall, most residents along those streets would continue to drive their cars north to the Plaza and Downtown.

It’s a different story, however, in northeast Kansas City and on the east and southeast sides of town. Many residents in those areas don’t have reliable transportation, and they need and deserve a good, convenient way to get to and from work, the Plaza, Crown Center, Union Station and Downtown.

Sure, they can catch the “Belching Blob” – the ATA – but, hell, the bus sucks!

 

streetcarThe proposed streetcar “spokes” east along Independence Avenue and Linwood Boulevard will give northeast, east-side and southeast-side residents an opportunity to travel not only in comfort but also in style, at least for parts of their urban journeys.

And don’t those residents deserve that much at this point in American’s transportation evolution? I mean, we Brooksiders and Ward Parkway Corridorites travel first class in our nice cars, so isn’t it about time we provided improved transportation in our less-affluent areas?

Running attractive, efficient streetcars on the East Side would be a boon for the entire city.

**

Of course, getting an extensive streetcar system is not as easy as it sounds. First, there’s that business of a one-cent sales tax within the streetcar district, which stretches from State Line Road to I-435, and property-tax increases for homeowners within a third of a mile of a streetcar line.

As many of you know, I helped lead the opposition last fall to the proposed half-cent-sales-tax for medical research, and I focused, among other things, on the regressive nature of the sales tax. By that, I mean that sales taxes take a bigger bite out of people with the lowest incomes.

Voters rejected that proposal by an astounding margin of 86 percent to 14 percent. It probably was the biggest margin of defeat ever for a tax proposal in Kansas City and Jackson County.

The “regressive-tax” argument still holds and will be difficult to overcome. Further complicating the matter is the proposed property-tax hike, which would hit people on either side of Main Street, Independence Avenue and Linwood Boulevard — hardly repositories of wealth and affluence.

On the plus side, the prospect of a modern streetcar system has a lot of inherent appeal, and the vast majority of people who live within a third of a mile would benefit tremendously — directly from improved transportation and indirectly from associated residential, retail and commercial development.

One of the major problems with the medical-research tax was that it was impossible to pitch the program as something that would directly benefit a wide swath of voters. That won’t be the case with a proposed streetcar-expansion tax. The consultants who run the campaign will be armed with a strong, credible sales pitch.

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You know, I really don’t have any emotional affinity for either KU or MU, even though Patty is an MU grad and got quite giddy during the football season.

But I listened to part of the KU-Stanford game today, watched the bitter end on TV and rooted for KU, mainly because they’re supposed to win games like that and they’re supposed to compete for the national title just about every year.

But I came away convinced that KU basketball is overrated, overhyped and even something of a con game.

I mean, people pay tens of thousands of dollars — sometimes hundreds, I guess — into the Williams Fund for the right to buy expensive seats to regular season games, where the gym is so loud you can’t hear a thing except the ringing in your ears.

And what does it get a KU fan — all that yelling and screaming and frothing at the mouth and rockin’ and chalkin’ and Jayhawkin’?

One NCAA tournament win,  followed  shortly by situational depression.  

tattoos and tears

Tears and tattoos

And what about the ballyhooed freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid?

Hardly got to know ’em, and now they’re “one and done” and headed to big signing bonuses in the NBA, I guess.

What a sham!

It seems to me that neither guy has really done much to prove his pro potential. Wiggins laid a big egg today and was hardly noticeable — except for his four turnovers — and Embiid has a broken back, which should give NBA owners pause.

…And people ask me why I’m crazy about women’s basketball.

Well, here are my reasons:

** The ladies play all four years, so it’s easy to become familiar with them and watch them develop as players.

** You can see outstanding basketball for $5 to $10 during the regular season and no more than about $50 at NCAA tournament games.

** You can sit just about anywhere you want. (I like to sit right behind one of the players’ benches.)

** You don’t have to worry about hearing loss (further, in my case).

tiffany

On the other hand…Tiffany Bias of Oklahoma State

** Many of those women are beautiful; you just have to sit close enough so you can study their faces and get past the baggy pants.

** And, finally, very few of the ladies have those ridiculous tattoos.

So, next week, I’ll probably be headed to either South Bend or Lincoln for some quarter-final games, and the weekend after that I’ll probably be in Nashville for the Final Four.

So, those of you who feel cheated by the KU, Kansas State and Wichita State men’s teams, perk up. Trust me — happy days are here again, just like that. Toss your brackets away and start following the ladies: They’re easier on the heart and eyes.

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Topeka doesn’t usually have much to shout about.

It’s got Washburn University, a highly regarded public institution; it’s got at least one big car dealership, Laird Noller Ford; and it’s got the best country western radio station in our region — KTPK, Country Legends 106.9, which you can pick up here in Kansas City under certain atmospheric conditions.

But this is a time of celebration in Topeka: The scourge of Topeka, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., died Wednesday.

And Topekans didn’t waste any time demonstrating how happy they were that the town’s personal demon was gone for good.

fred

Fred Phelps Sr.

Here’s how Dugan Arnett and Donald Bradley, Kansas City Star reporters, described the reaction to Phelps’ death in Topeka, home of Phelps’ infamous Westboro Baptist Church, (which really was not Baptist but unaffiliated).

“The Topeka neighborhood occupied by the church was a scene of jubilation Thursday afternoon, complete with honking horns and smiling faces. Neighbors said the procession began shortly after the family announced Fred Phelps’ death.

“Some people weren’t satisfied with just driving by Westboro Baptist and tooting a horn. Some got out of their cars and posed for pictures with a streaming sign in a church window about whoremongers and sodomites going to hell.

“People happily milled about the street. Perfect strangers shook hands. A Topeka woman handed out buttons that said, simply “FRED” with a diagonal red line through the name.”

Indeed, Phelps came to stand (to his pleasure, I’m sure) for such perverted hatred of gays that he and his followers would picket the funerals of American soldiers killed in action — the rationale being that their deaths were God’s way of punishing the United State for increasing acceptance of gay rights.

The first time I read about an instance like that it took me a while to comprehend the reasoning, it was so upside down. But, then, there’s a lot of upside down thinking — and some of it even more dangerous than the Fred Phelps brand…Think Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols and Oklahoma City, for example, or Nidal Malik Hasan, the former U.S. Army psychiatrist who fatally shot 13 people and injured more than 30 others in the Fort Hood mass shooting on Nov. 5, 2009.

But for the way he consistently and continuously agitated, irritated and angered, Fred Phelps earned a legitimate shot at Public Enemy No. 1, certainly in our region and maybe even nationwide.

**

Another interesting thing in the Kansas City Star article was what Megan Phelps-Roper had to say about Grandpa Fred.

“I’m so sorry for the harm he caused. That we all caused. (Megan left the church a year ago.) But he could be so kind and wonderful. I wish you all could have seen that, too.”

“So kind and wonderful….”

You know, even the turd who raped and killed 10-year-old Hailey Owens in Springfield, Missouri, last month was probably “kind and wonderful” to somebody at some point. But a moment of kindness here and there doesn’t define a person, and it doesn’t define a guy like Fred Phelps, who, at some point, made a conscious decision to elevate his profile by dedicating himself to outrageous and despicable activities.

It was pretty clear that thirst for fame — not any principle — motivated him.

Los Angles time reporter Steve Chawkins said this about Phelps in an obituary posted on Thursday.

“Fred Phelps, a publicity-hungry Kansas pastor who picketed hundreds of military funerals because he believed America was too sympathetic to gays, died early Thursday in Topeka, Kan. He was 84…With his small Topeka congregation, Phelps also demonstrated at funerals and memorials for Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, former Mormon leader Gordon B. Hinckley and heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio — any observance, regardless of any connection to gay issues, where cameras might be rolling.”

Also, it is noteworthy that Phelps ran for Kansas governor, U.S. Senate and Topeka mayor. Just about everyone who runs for public office has thoughts of notoriety or even grandeur: “I should be elected because I’ve got something unique to offer.” 

In saying that, I’m not criticizing people who run for office, because a lot of candidates do have something to offer, and many end up making laudable, lasting contributions to their towns, cities, counties, states or nations.

But in the end, it was ego alone that drove Fred Phelps to pervert himself and his followers.

It was a sorry saga, for sure. But today is a day to celebrate — not a life but a death.

Fred is dead. Party on, Topeka!

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