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PETA's Investigation of Asmussen: Can It Help Boost Horse Racing's Popularity?

Alan HorvathCorrespondent IDecember 8, 2016

PETA's Investigation of Asmussen: Can It Help Boost Horse Racing's Popularity?

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    Embattled trainer Steve Asmussen facing PETA allegations
    Embattled trainer Steve Asmussen facing PETA allegationsRob Carr/Getty Images

    What do the people involved with horse racing really think when it comes to PETA's (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) undercover investigation of trainer Steve Asmussen?

    When the dust settles, will horse racing suffer, or is it possible PETA will be recognized as the organization partially responsible for making "The Sport of Kings" even bigger than it already is with an influx of new fans and horseplayers alike?

    When the story of PETA's undercover investigation of top horse racing trainer Asmussen's barn broke in a New York Times article on March 19, the initial reaction within racing circles was a combination of both shock and dismay.

    Especially chilling was a secret nine-minute edited video (NSFW) shot by PETA's undercover agent, hired by the Asmussen team to assist in their stables without the knowledge the person was actually a spy for the animal rights organization.

    Appearing in the video, assistant trainer Scott Blasi presented a wildly unflattering picture of the Asmussen stable activities. Within three days of the article's release, Blasi was fired by Asmussen after working for him for more than 18 years.

    PETA has filed state and federal complaints against Asmussen for his alleged disregard for the safety and well-being of the horses he trains. Once eligible to be voted into the Horse Racing Hall of Fame, Asmussen's name was yanked from the 2014 ballot and tabled until further notice.

    Although ranked second in career victories among the nation's trainers, Asmussen took another hit when owner Ahmed Zayat announced he was transferring 12 of his horses (once under Asmussen's care) to other stables and they were parting ways, as reported by The Daily Racing Form.

    Important to remember at this time, the PETA investigation has resulted in proposed evidence and allegations against Asmussen. He has not officially been ruled guilty of anything yet.

    Questions regarding the investigation and its outcome were posed to three individuals who are passionately involved with the sport of horse racing.

    Represented are a racing media personality, a longtime horseplayer and fan and a professional stakes winning jockey, who actually competes on the New York Racing Association circuit where Asmussen has enjoyed some of his greatest successes throughout his illustrious career.

    What follows are their candid written thoughts on the PETA investigation without pulling any punches. Each of their views are exclusive and independent of the others.

Twinspires Writer, Race Statistical Analyst and Podcast Host Derek Simon

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    Twinspires writer, race statistical analyst and podcast host
    Twinspires writer, race statistical analyst and podcast hostDerek Simon

    Derek Simon has successfully covered or been actively involved in a gamut of arenas within the horse racing world. It begins, first and foremost, with being a dedicated fan of the sport who approaches its aspects with an unbiased honest eye.

    Simon has interviewed some of racing's biggest stars on and off the track, from Graham Motion to Andy Beyer, on his weekly podcast heard by thousands. He also writes for Twinspires and produces fair odds for every race at every track from his enormous database of racing statistics.

    As a handicapper, Simon has played both professionally and casually—producing multiple life-changing scores. Of notoriety, he went on record by correctly predicting the 2008 Belmont Stakes winner, Da'Tara, at odds of 38-1 when heavily favored Big Brown went down in flames.

    Question: Has the pending results of PETA's investigation of Steve Asmussen's barn changed your enthusiasm with the sport of horse racing?

    Simon: Not the investigation itself, but the reaction, definitely. I don’t agree with PETA’s aims in any way. Frankly, I think it is an organization that is very much guilty of the cruelty it accuses others of—the kill rate in the shelters it runs demonstrates that—but attacking the young woman who shot the video? Inexcusable. Ignoring the video because PETA was behind it? Inexcusable.

    Question: What was your reaction to the nine-minute PETA video?

    Simon: I was less concerned about the drug abuse—that was inferred, not proven—but the crass attitude and the apparent callousness bothered me greatly. I was also troubled by the footage relating to illegal backstretch workers. I can’t say that surprised me—in my short time working on the backstretch, the class system rivaled feudal England—but it’s disappointing to me that there appeared to be a whole system in place to cheat the system.

    Question: Have you noticed a fallout among racing fans since the NY Times article broke on March 19, or do the majority see the investigation as simply another trainer catching heat, such as Rick Dutrow did, and they are strictly focused on racing as usual?

    Simon: I think it had little impact on current fans, but in my opinion, it puts yet another chip in the foundation of a sport that so many of us love.

    Question: Is it possible for Asmussen and Blasi to rebound from the allegations, or are their primary roles moving forward to be made examples of for what not to do?

    Simon: Blasi is basically done. Asmussen’s longevity will be directly related to his ability to continue winning. It should be noted, however, that very few "suspected cheaters" have maintained their success after they were bathed in the cynical spotlight. Oscar Barrera, Jeff Mullins—even human athletes like Jose Canseco and Sammy Sosa struggled once questions surfaced about their "training regimen."

    Question: How can PETA's investigation turn out to actually be a shot in the arm for the sport of horse racing while increasing its popularity and fanbase?

    Simon: If—and it’s a big if—racing’s elite, like Ogden Phipps, put their money where their mouth is and refuse to employ unscrupulous guys.

Horseplayer Tony Kost

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    Winning Horseplayer and racing enthusiast
    Winning Horseplayer and racing enthusiastTony Kost

    Tony Kost's love affair with horse racing took off during Secretariat's record-shattering run to the Triple Crown in 1973. It was also the racing season when Kost learned how to interpret data from the Daily Racing Form and turn it into money.

    A continually evolving student and fan of the sport, Kost possesses an in-depth knowledge bank of the horses, jockeys, trainers, owners and track conditioning. Outside of racing, Kost is an actor who has appeared in both feature films and on television.

    The big questions were: would Kost be thrown by PETA's allegations, and could they jade his feelings about the sport he loves?

    Question: What was your reaction to the nine-minute PETA video?

    Kost: It was definitely disturbing, particularly to a bit of a racing cynic like me. I knew they did bad things, but that Nehro business was bad.

    Additionally, I don't believe Zayat was ignorant to this. I remember a few years back, he pulled his horses out of Del Mar and sent most of them east to Bill Mott. Mott is not a win-early guy, but he won a load of two-year-old meets. Zayat spends big money, and like most owners, demands results and quickly.

    Question: Have you noticed a fallout among racing fans since the NY Times article broke on March 19, or do the majority see the investigation as simply another trainer catching heat, such as Rick Dutrow did, and they are strictly focused on racing as usual?

    Kost: I really haven't heard much but token talk about the investigation. The fans know its business as usual, I think.

    Question: Has the pending results of PETA's investigation of Steve Asmussen's barn changed your enthusiasm with the sport of horse racing?

    Kost: I have always gone in from a handicapping point of view knowing there are cheats. Many of my wins are based on quick turnarounds from barn swaps, so no. I am fully aware that when there is a pile of money on the table top, stables will employ chemists to manufacture performance enhancing drugs and masking agents.

    Question: Is it possible for Asmussen and Blasi to rebound from the allegations, or are their primary roles moving forward to be made examples of for what not to do?

    Kost: I think Asmussen is the catch of the year, so to speak. He will rebound, but I think Blasi said some pretty blatantly damaging stuff. I do think they go after these guys selectively. Dutrow was brash, and when he copped that Derby from the 20-hole I saw trouble on the horizon for him. Biancone was another who seemed to ruffle the feathers of the Blue Bloods down there.

    Question: How do you assess physical soundness when choosing your horses before a race?

    Kost: Assessing a horse's soundness or determining their demeanor and translating it to performance is not my strong suit. I think that it is something you need to keep notes on. Of course, I know when a horse is "on the muscle," but that doesn't guarantee performance.

    I determine much of my plays off paper. I have seen scores of washed out looking "rats" jog. So, you never know unless you know the individual.

    Question: Will your future wagering be altered by this investigation? If so, how?

    Kost: It will not have an effect on my play. I love the game. I would love to think guys like Barry Irwin, and Glenn Thompson continue to campaign against drugs in the sport.

    I mean, when you consider the overall impact drugs have on this game it takes us into a whole other realm. Consider the breeding aspect of the game—you see it constantly. Multiple Grade-1 winner, son of such and such. How many of those Grade-1 wins were drug-aided?

    Question: How can PETA's investigation turn out to actually be a shot in the arm for the sport of horse racing while increasing its popularity and fan base?

    Kost: I think the fan base in the sport suffers largely due to the complexity of the game. Potential players will often determine if they like the game or not based on their first experience.

    I believe medication restriction could simplify the game and produce more formful results, and that would be a good thing. Most people want to at least believe they have a chance at winning, otherwise they are more likely to be drawn toward casino gaming. This investigation is quite an ugly piece and may or may not have an effect on the short term. However, in the long term, racing has a chance to clean up its image, and perhaps increase its fan base.

    It can't hurt to try. Big days (Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races) is when the turnout is at its best. I think getting players in on those days has potential, particularly with solid analysis and insight from guys like Jerry Bailey and Gary Stevens is helpful, but racing is quite unpredictable even for the so-called experts.

    Breakdowns and the ugly side hurts the game, and the push and pressure for that Derby chase will almost always end up badly for some horses. The Triple Crown chase is extremely demanding on a young horse, and there will be collateral damage as long as that particular series is tremendously sought after with a breed that isn't as durable as it was in years past.

Jockey Maylan Studart

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    Jockeys Maylan Studart (left), Javier Castellano, Luis Saez, and Edgar Prado
    Jockeys Maylan Studart (left), Javier Castellano, Luis Saez, and Edgar PradoJoe Labozzetta

    Maylan Studart has been racing on the New York Racing Association circuit since 2008.

    A female Brazilian racing prodigy, Studart competes in the major New York market against some of the nation's greatest jockeys, such as Joel Rosario and Javier Castellano.

    On horses since the age of four, a devout animal lover, a skilled show jumper and now a professional jockey with eight years of experience, Studart is a fearless advocate who steps up to the plate for just causes that she believes in.

    Some of them include NYC Clean Energy, New Yorkers Against Fracking, and HorseAbility where she is a volunteer. Studart is also a five-year veteran of the Muscular Dystrophy Association's Muscle Team, representing NYRA. 

    This time, however, it gets extra personal as Studart takes the "microphone" and weighs in on the PETA investigation and how it could impact the future of her very own sport—horse racing.

    Question: How do you feel after seeing the PETA video? 

    Studart: Shocked. Upset. Saddened that some of the best horses in the country might have possibly been mistreated and abused. There's no concrete proof of this on the video, but after the New York Gaming Commission resolves its investigation, we will know the truth.

    Question: Do you think owners, trainers and jockeys should take a stand in this matter?

    Studart: Absolutely. This undercover investigation is the greatest opportunity that the horse racing industry has had since the Triple Crown of Seattle Slew. It is an opportunity to improve our sport, for our own credibility amongst each other, and especially our fans—for who, without them, horse racing would cease to exist.

    We as horsemen should take our own initiatives to have our own investigation into every trainer in our training facilities, to make sure there isn't any suspicious activities such as the ones mentioned in the video, like possible illicit drug administration and harboring of illegal aliens.

    We should also ask the gaming commission to make violation penalties much stricter, with much longer suspensions and higher fines. That way, we are protecting each other, the jockeys and horses, while making our sport more credible and resistant to cheating. Every sport has its Lance Armstrong's, but we must be much more proactive than we are now by leveling the playing field. Then, we can all better compete without fear that some are not playing by the rules.

    Question: Are you admitting that horsemen cheat? 

    Studart: Absolutely not. I am acknowledging that there are people who try to cheat, but I can say from experience that we are all just trying to make an honest living while riding in one of the most policed states in the country.

    Someone who would deliberately cheat is a fool, because they would most likely get caught. New York is a model for the entire sport, by having the strictest rules and regulations in the country.

    An example of that is when the Kentucky Derby winner two years ago (I'll Have Another) wore nose-strips during his races. When he came to run in the Belmont Stakes, he was not allowed to run with the breathing strips because it is seen as performance enhancing here. Eventually, the horse scratched out of the race and never completed the Triple Crown circuit.

    This is not to say that we can not do more. As seen on the PETA video, there is much more we can do by taking our own initiatives and measures to protect our horses, our jockeys and the betting public.

    Question: What is your takeaway from this entire situation since the PETA video? 

    Studart: I think that horse racing, its owners, trainers and jockeys should take this major opportunity to clean up its act. No one will deny that mistreatment and abuse of animals is illegal. Instead of taking an opposing stance to PETA's because of its sensationalist claims in the past, we should embrace the idea that we can be better. We can be a better sport, a more fun sport and more honest.

    I love my sport—horse racing is my life. I have been a professional jockey for eight years and have ridden with the best jockeys in the world. I don't want horse racing to die because we are too busy defending higher ups and people with money, rather than defending the honest—our loyal fans and our beautiful horses. I want to see my sport rise above this crisis with its soul clean. We can do it, but only if we stand up, speak and take action.

    Question: Has the pending results of PETA's investigation of Steve Asmussen's barn changed your enthusiasm with the sport of horse racing?

    Studart: Yes it has slightly. I feel very sad to know that one of the greatest trainers I've known could have been doing those things in the video for so long. It makes me sad and jaded. I hope the factual truth comes out for the sake of our bettors and colleagues. I want cheaters to be weeded out, leveling the playing field for my sport, so we can all compete equally.

    Question: Have you noticed a fallout among racing fans since the NY Times article broke on March 19, or do the majority see the investigation as simply another trainer catching heat, such as trainer Rick Dutrow, and they are strictly focused on racing as usual?

    Studart: I have not "noticed" a fallout, but I am not directly involved with bettors and fans. My job is riding horses the best I can while evolving my relationship with the trainers. However, I am sure there has been a fallout. As a horse-loving person, I felt angry at that video, seeing what was happening right below our noses.

    If I, from within the sport, felt like that, I can only imagine how people ignorant to horse racing felt when they were bombarded with those pictures, even though half of the video spread misinformation, sensationalism and fear.

    Question: Is it possible for Asmussen and Blasi to rebound from the allegations, or are their primary roles moving forward to be made examples of for what not to do?

    Studart: Possible for them to rebound? It will all depend solely on the results of the investigation by the gaming commission and if there is actually concrete proof of the allegations. In America, one is innocent until proven guilty, and we must wait for the due process to take its course. Only then can their futures be discussed.

    Question: How can PETA's investigation turn out to actually be a shot in the arm for the sport of horse racing while increasing its popularity and fan base?

    Studart: PETA's investigation can help our industry immensely, if we embrace the idea of eliminating this culture of cheating and overused medications.

    Let's not hide behind the curtain and pretend everything is alright, because we all know we can do better. We can have stricter medication rules, stricter racing day rules, and more veterinarian oversight. Also, by taking the helm with the initiative of creating a national body of racing oversight and homogenizing the racing rules and regulations for every racetrack in the country.

    Let's do an overhaul of our industry and show our tenuously loyal fans that we mean business and we will rise up to the occasion and do better. That includes protecting more of our horses, our jockeys and our bettors and great fans. We are a great sport. It should not be based on greed and a bad bunch, but on most of us who sacrifice our lives and live and breathe for these horses. We should be an open door institution and welcome change and cameras.

    Question: What would you do to improve the life of the race horses and jockeys?

    Studart: The most important thing to do immediately is hire top veterinarians in the country through the NY Gaming Commission. Next, have them "raid" or randomly search every horse in every barn, every stall, and catalog them—taking blood and urine samples from them all to test for illicit drugs.

    A random search and cease would be an excellent way to see who is following the rules and who is not. That gives us a starting point, providing a better picture of what is going on behind the scenes that officials in the offices do not know about. This would immensely help our horses, and especially us, the jockeys who ride them, by making us feel safer that we are on a healthy horse.

    The "raid" would also prevent animal abuse within our quarters. The vet would make the decision if a horse is underweight, malnourished or abused. By taking that information gathered, with the results of the physical tests, to the Gaming Commission, they could give an offending trainer the appropriate harsh penalty for mistreating the horses under their care.

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