Avoiding the Nuclear Option - by Eric Mitchell

In a column that ran in The Blood-Horse’s March 29, 2014, issue, we addressed the breaking scandal involving a video released and published by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). At the time we stated: 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 content of the PETA video did prove to be false and misleading, according to an investigation conducted by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. The commission appropriately concluded that no abuse had been documented by the “undercover” investigation of trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn by Kerin Rosen, working on behalf of PETA. Nearly every issue raised in the shock product PETA gleaned from Rosen’s work was a mischaracterization of reality. Horses were not being given illegal medications, Zayat Stables’ Nehro did not have “nubs” for hooves, and the repeated claims that horses were forced to run crippled and sore were simply unsubstantiated exaggerations by an organization whose primary goal is to shut down the sport entirely.

Given what we now know, our previous position in this column that the video should not be dismissed “solely as the fabrication of radicals” also deserves reconsideration. As an industry, we need to be aggressive in response to outside attacks.

The nation learned of the PETA video through a New York Times article that minimally addressed the motive for the video or its veracity. The racing industry’s reaction leaned more toward condemning Asmussen than a two-prong approach of explaining 1) PETA has an agenda and a history of distorting facts to meet that agenda, and 2) the Thoroughbred industry comprises tens of thousands of hard-working people nationwide who care deeply for the horses in their care.

While the KHRC investigation cleared Asmussen, it certainly doesn’t wipe the slate clean. The trainer does have a tarnished record when it comes to medication rules. He was suspended for six months in 2006 after a horse at Evangeline Downs tested positive for mepivicaine. Since then he’s been cited seven times for medication violations including overages for furosemide, phenylbutazone, and the tranquilizer acepromazine but also for overages of ulcer medication and an anti-parastic drug. Asmussen’s regulatory history is quite likely the reason PETA embedded one of its investigators in his stable. PETA’s propaganda would be easier to sell with a trainer that already had a history of violations, which certainly seemed to be the case when it pitched its story to the Times.

But the Asmussen story is not black and white, though many would prefer it to be. The KHRC could not find any evidence that Asmussen’s horses received substandard care. The most damning information unveiled by PETA was assistant trainer Scott Blasi’s profane and unprofessional rants against some of the stable’s owners and a cavalier attitude about unloading untalented claiming horses. Even this evidence cannot be put into context because KHRC investigators never got to see the full seven hours of video reportedly captured by Rosen. Nor did the KHRC receive a 285-page report compiled by Rosen.

What the KHRC does have is multiple messages from Rosen to Blasi expressing remorse. On Aug. 16, 2013, she sent him a text apologizing but didn’t explain why. Then she called Blasi two days before the Times published its first piece about the video and was “hysterical, telling me what a good person I am,” according to Blasi. It also deserves noting that after Rosen left Asmussen’s barn she never contacted racetrack officials or regulatory authorities about any mistreatment or abuse.

We’re not saying horse racing doesn’t have issues that need to be addressed. We’re not saying there are not cheaters who need to be exposed and banned from the sport. But as an industry, we cannot give credibility to an organization that freely promotes its agenda to end horse racing. Such an approach is akin to exercising a nuclear option in order to achieve reform; remodeling the house by tearing it down.

Once the house is gone then all the features that made it great, made it unique, and made it worth visiting will be forgotten, and no one will care if it’s ever rebuilt. 


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