Horse Racing Commissioner, Please

March 24, 2014


Our Third Past the Wire was going to be about what truly is the ultimate fantasy sport. A sport that allows and encourages participation on many levels. Even the most casual player can set up a fantasy stable that rivals any draft. You can play owner, trainer, or even rider and play your horses when they are entered where you like. All for a nice financial reward when you are right. If there is a better fantasy game out there I haven’t seen it. Maybe some day someone will create such a game. How it would work without taking much needed handle away fro the sport remains to be seen, but that is their question for the future should it ever happen.

Unfortunately, the events of the past week have steered us in another direction. Our fantasy column will have to take a back seat for now. Perhaps we will bring it back up but for now we will address the matters at hand.

As most of you are aware, PETA or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, released a video this past week that has put our game in question and caused a considerable amount of dissension and conflict amongst the ranks. They have also filed complaints with both regulatory and governmental agencies alleging animal cruelty and other misconduct within the horse racing industry and specifically in the barn of Steve Asmussen. Apparently an investigator who has yet to be formally identified, although she has been revealed and attacked on social media, got a job in the Asmussen stable during the famous Churchill Downs spring meet and the Saratoga summer meet. It has been reported that during this time, the investigator made about eight hours of secretly recorded video of which PETA released just about nine minutes. That leaves a lot of video we have not seen.

One of the great things about our game is that it pits opinions against each other on just about every level and there is no shortage of them. From breeding to buying to owning to training to betting, we back our opinions. Opinions are the very nature of pari-mutual wagering, the backbone of our sport. It therefore came as no surprise the varying opinions on the recent Gulfstream Park Rainbow 6 disqualification or the PETA video. What was surprising in the PETA case was the hostility and infighting strewn across social media amongst members of our game. Sure there was some nice discussion but for the most part people were  bashing one side or the other.

The passion is understandable to a large degree. Many people in the game love animals and horses and do all they can for them and to insure they are well treated and cared for. These people felt attacked by the sensationalistic nature of PETA’s video and responded accordingly. Many are not all however and the PETA video, if even a touch accurate, brings into question some potentially ugly parts of our game. Is it accurate though and if so how accurate?

The video certainly paints the Asmussen barn in a very ugly light which was helped no doubt by the chosen language of longtime Asmussen assistant Scott Blasi. Taken at face value, it is hard not to be extremely upset at what the video purports to be routine practices within our game and the treatment of our race horses as well as the attitude that seems to come across on the backside. Interestingly enough is also the timing of the video which coincided with Steve Asmussen being on the ballot this year for racing’s Hall of Fame. No small honor to say the least.

The video talks about Nehro, a high level graded stakes horse that actually ran second in the Kentucky Derby. He was owned by Ahmad Zayat, a high profile owner who runs his stable of top horses with much more transparency than most high profile barns. That’s a credit to him and good for the game. It also makes the video more surprising. The video shows a farrier discussing Nehro with Scott Blasi. It shows them discussing the ongoing poor condition of Nehro’s feet and one which is so damaged it is referred to as having only a nub and no pulse. It is also acknowledged it is painful. It is very disturbing to watch. It seems in the video and Scott Blasi does make reference to the horse continuing to race because of his owner. Ahmad Zayat expressed shock and sadness at the video on social media and vowed to do an internal investigation and make any appropriate changes needed. In determining if the video or at least this portion of it is accurate I would want to see Nehro’s vet bills. Mr. Zayat has seen them and would or should know if this was indeed an ongoing problem. While we do not have access to those we do have access to some knowledgeable expert opinions.

Most of you probably know who Bruno De Julio is. Bruno has been involved in the game a long time, on many different levels, from sales to ownership to professional handicapping, clocking and most recently providing “Brunowiththeworks,” a detailed handicapping report with his analysis on workouts. I have always considered Bruno to be knowledgeable and honest and a straight shooter. He weighed in on the Nehro portion of the video pointing out some other possible explanations. Bruno stated on his twitter account “what happened is he tore his z bar off on track, took his wall off the foot-he wasn’t being sent out on a knob.” Further he stated “that whole conversation was edited so you didn’t know he had just done that on the track working or galloping.” He also pointed out the comment about no pulse was actually a positive one negatively spun by PETA playing on the ignorance of the public.

The video also shows a conversation between some members of a dinner group which include D. Wayne Lukas and Gary Stevens, both legends in the game. During the dinner conversation which is extremely and obviously out of context, you hear Gary Stevens making reference to his switching hands and shocking himself. The clear implication is his use of a battery. The problem with this portion of the video is, it is so out of context you really don’t know what they were referring to or when, was it a joke, was it twenty five years ago when Gary was scrambling for mounts and had to say yes boss to trainers or starve. You just don’t know. Wayne Lukas weighs in joking about how prevalent batteries were back at Ruidoso Downs and we all know how long ago he was there.

There are additional accusations in the video we do not need to discuss here. What we do need to know is what if any of them are true and what we can do to bring about the changes to prevent or at the least minimize these things going forward. Shortly after the video’s release, Steve Asmussen was removed from the Hall of Fame ballot and fired Scott Blasi. What is deafening however is the silence from both thus far. Neither has come forward screaming what is depicted on the video isn’t true.

PETA does not have the best reputation, especially around the racetrack. They have been misleading in the past and more often than not their motives are political and financial in nature and not in the best interest of animals. PETA however is not at issue here. If there is indeed truth in the message then it matters little to me who brought it. The question remains ,however, is the message true? Well at present we don’t know the answer to that. We do know there are many more hours of video we were not shown to go along with those few minutes. We also know PETA has an agenda. Their website states “ The best thing you can do for racehorses is to never attend or place a bet on any race, including the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes.” It’s pretty clear what PETA would like to see happen and we should not help them achieve it. We need to love and care for all our horses, respect them and our game and implement what needs to be done to ensure all participants understand this and are on board. While we know these things about PETA we also know some things about the game we love and it’s time to admit them and deal with them. As opposed to the PETA video causing us to fight amongst ourselves let’s use it against them and all other critics of our sport and fix what’s wrong and what we can.

While we don’t know the accuracy of the video, we do know there are far too many drugs in the game, therapeutic and otherwise. We know too many ex racehorses are abandoned and go to slaughter, and too many are raced when they should be retired. This is what makes our sport ugly and brings it down. Before we can worry about bringing in new fans, we have to restore the game to the Sport of Kings.

Let’s talk drugs first. Does anyone remember when Kentucky Derby winners, especially those who were not geldings raced at 4 and beyond? Does anyone recall when two Triple Crown winners raced each other? Did any of you know Citation raced after the Preakness and before the Belmont in his Triple Crown season? Can anyone tell me if any Triple Crown winner ran on Lasix up to this point? We need to rid the game of race day medication including Lasix and all others. If our horses are not healthy enough to run without pain killers, anti inflammatories, and anti-bleeding drugs then get them right or keep them in the barn. I grew up when New York racing was the pinnacle of the sport. We had no Lasix and our horses ran faster, ran longer and were plain better and sounder than any in the world. It changed when we started allowing Lasix and additional drugs. Sure breeding changed too but that will revert when we rid the game of the drugs. Only a limited amount of drugs should be allowed for training purposes with the goal treatment of issues and not getting horses to be able to race that shouldn’t. They should be administered by a Vet and there should be a record of it available. Transparency goes a long way. Woody Stephens, Mack Miller, TJ Kelly, and many others never needed all these drugs to compete at the highest levels. Neither do we. The sad cold reality is that drugs, both legal and illegal, and off label are prevalent in our sport and as an industry we fail to address and even acknowledge it. It will take a major shakeup at some point to get the industry to come to this reality, at least openly. 

To the naysayers and pessimists regarding a central governing body and a horse racing commissioner, you need to reconsider. You’re being part of the problem and not the solution. Racing needs uniformity even from state to state. Other sports have it and they compete in multiple states. If we don’t do it, eventually the Government may or we may fail. I have been an advocate for a central governing body for a long time and it seems we need it more than ever today. We need knowledgeable racing people from all walks of the game and not political appointees on it for it to work. That includes people from the wagering side who have never been looked out for nor had a voice, from the backside and all other facets of the game. Will this bring in the new fans we desperately need? Not right away but it’s a healthy start. We also need to have programs designed for the care and placement of horses after they cannot race. Old Friends and places like that should be abundant and receive funding from purses, racinos and takeout. There needs to be stiff penalties for not playing by the rules and especially harsh ones when it involves cruelty to our horses. We need to take care of our permanently disabled riders as well with those same funds. Under a central governing body, all need to be treated without selective enforcement and with zero tolerance. One positive, you’re out. Racing is a privilege, not a right. It can’t be selective, and it can’t vary from track to track or state to state. Every trainer and owner needs to know these are the rules going forward. Wanna play follow them.

So whether or not the PETA video was entirely accurate or not, whether they obtained it fairly or not and what their true motives are, is not what counts here or is at issue. Acknowledging some of the problems we can fix is. There are good and bad in all games and ours is no different. This is no attack on the many caring and loving participants in our game and the many that live this life 24/7, no not at all. Those that fall into that category should welcome the opportunity to ensure only those who feel and conduct themselves similarly remain in it.

On a positive note, we have some great racing and stellar cards to look forward to this week. Saturday is the Florida Derby and a host of supporting stakes races which will provide some great opportunities. The Rainbow 6 is at 4 million and counting. We also have the Dubai World Cup and the Louisiana Derby and their supporting cards upon us.

@PastTheWire unreal

Jimmy Williams @matt918476 View testimonials