American Thoroughbred racing took a full-speed, unprotected body blow last week when undercover work done by an animal-rights activist group was published by the New York Times.
Recapping the story seems unnecessary as widely distributed as it was through social media, but here we go. A young woman representing People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) got a job in trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn. Over four months she reportedly recorded seven hours of video with a hidden camera (smart phone?), and PETA condensed the content into a damning 91⁄2-minute documentary. The highlights of the video include: callous and profane comments from Asmussen’s now former assistant trainer Scott Blasi about the horses under his care; a farrier discussing the apparently horrible condition of the feet of Nehro—Ahmed Zayat’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) runner-up while he was in training; and, a dinner conversation during which Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens and Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas joke about the use of “buzzers,” battery-powered devices created to shock horses into action.
The dramatic, sensational descriptions and characterizations in the PETA documentary were not surprising considering the video was created by an organization that is outspoken about its goal to end horse racing. The video and the comments spliced together, however, lack context while the overlaid narration makes nefarious connections to what is being shown though none may exist. You see a lot of footage of veterinarians with needles and comments about horses getting daily regimens of painkillers and performance-enhancing drugs.
Everything is poured into one bucket: all medications are bad and all horses are abused. The PETA investigator recorded seven hours of video but all we get to see is just over nine minutes of it, some of which is not related to Asmussen at all. Included is footage shot at an Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co.’s under tack show a couple of years ago where a 2-year-old sale candidate unfortunately broke down. Sad and disturbing, but completely unrelated. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what’s in the other six hours and 51 minutes? What are the full conversations from which these inflammatory statements were lifted?
Embracing the story as the full truth about horse racing is wrong, but dismissing the story solely as the fabrication of radicals also would be wrong.
The industry needs to pay attention.
An over-reliance on medication is damaging the sport’s reputation. Owners complain about escalating vet bills, the use of furosemide exploded from an as-needed medication to one that is now given to 95% of starters, and the public hears increasingly about products like thyroxine, a hormone that accelerates metabolism and increases cardiovascular output by enhancing heart contractions. Veterinarians reportedly give thyroxine to overweight horses but the product was reportedly given as a regular dietary supplement by both Asmussen and, until recently, Bob Baffert.
Anti-inflammatory drugs for sore joints and muscles are legal therapeutic medications and have their place, but they cannot be used as short-cuts in conditioning. If a horse is not holding up to the stress of training, maybe it needs time off instead of treatment.
Owners have a responsibility here, too. Don’t just pay the bill. Ask questions about what is being given to your horses and why.
And for the owners and trainers who simply know no other way than to continually try to game the system, the industry must accelerate its efforts to cull these bad apples. The proposed uniform medication rules and penalties created by the Racing Medication & Testing Consortium and the Association of Racing Commissioners International include tougher sanctions—up to a five-year suspension and $50,000 fine for trainers caught with a third Class A offense; and for owners, a disqualification, loss of purse, $50,000 fine, and the horse suspended from running for 180 days following a third offense.
To state racing commissioners: You cannot implement these penalties fast enough.
It also cannot be stressed enough that the racing industry must find a way to promote the people who truly care. Put their faces in front of the public and tell the stories of how much their horses are part of their lives and their families. Show the sacrifices they make to keep their horses healthy and happy.
Luckily for racing, these stories are not marketing spin. Honorable owners, breeders, and trainers are out there, doing right by their horses every day.