By John David Dyche
On Kentucky Derby night 2012, someone murdered Adan Perez. The groom's body was found in a backside barn at Churchill Downs. No arrest has happened, and almost two years later the case has grown cold.
This sad and unresolved situation is symbolic of so much in thoroughbred horse racing now. Despite plenty of positives, there are several serious problems that prevent racing from reaching its full potential and returning to its past position in the pantheon of America's most popular sports.
One stark reminder of racing's darker side is distracting fans from Keeneland's Spring Meet, the thrilling Kentucky Derby and Oaks prep races and Kentucky Derby Festival fun. The New York Times recently reported on an undercover investigation at Churchill Downs by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that accuses racing's second all-time winningest trainer, Steve Asmussen, and his then-top assistant, Scott Blasi, "of subjecting their horses to cruel and injurious treatments, administering drugs to them for nontherapeutic purposes, and having one of their jockeys use an electrical device to shock horses into running faster."
PETA filed a complaint with Kentucky racing officials accusing Asmussen of forcing "injured and/or suffering horses to race and train." The Times also reports that PETA claims Asmussen also employed "undocumented workers, requiring them to use false names on Internal Revenue Service forms, and conspiring with Blasi to produce false identification documents, according to the complaints filed with state and federal agencies," as well as violating wage and hour laws.
Asmussen fired Blasi, but has avoided public comment. Some of his clients have taken their horses away from him. Even if only partly true the report is profoundly unsettling for horse-lovers and the industry, especially since Asmussen trains leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby (Tapiture) and the Kentucky Oaks (Untapable).
Yet voluntary reform remains elusive. In a recent column urging all states to adopt a package of uniform medication measures, Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, notes, "There is justifiable skepticism about our ability to achieve national reform in a state-regulated industry."
Ogden Phipps, chairman of the venerable Jockey Club, which is dedicated to the improvement of thoroughbred breeding and racing, acknowledges that racing deserves criticism "because the sport's rules and our penalties have not been effective deterrents." Phipps says that if states do not promptly enact the uniform medication reforms his organization will seek federal legislation, including a race-day medication ban.
"With the safety of our horses, the integrity of competition and the general perception of the sport all at risk," Phipps said, "we cannot afford to wait any longer. Enough is enough." Indeed it is.
In Kentucky, expanded gambling, i.e., casinos, is another example of failure and frustration in the commonwealth's fractious, often fragmented, industry. Despite the aggressive efforts of Kentucky Wins!, a coalition of heavy-hitters dedicated to expanding "gaming" in Kentucky, another General Assembly session has come and almost gone without voting on, much less passing, a pro-casino constitutional amendment.
In his 2007 campaign, Governor Steve Beshear unconditionally promised he would get expanded gambling. Beshear refused to answer questions about alternatives gambling revenue did not materialize because he supposedly had the leadership skill to make it happen. Beshear has been a bad bet for pro-gambling Kentuckians.
Although the Democrats in the state House of Representatives act disappointed, they are actually delighted. Their U. S. Senate candidate, Alison Lundergan Grimes, does not want the issue on this November's ballot because it might make more conservative voters turn out. Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonsburg/Lexington) probably had 60 votes to pass an amendment in his chamber, but he wants to rake in another cycle's worth of campaign contributions from the horse industry as he tries to hold on to his party's precarious majority.
With his hand out (palm up) toward the equine industry, Stumbo says that if he can hold onto his speakership he will make expanded gambling his top priority next year. That should be small solace to the casino crowd given how unsuccessful Stumbo was with his top priority (higher minimum wage) this year.
There is no guarantee that casinos would help Kentucky's horse industry and racetracks. Some alternatives could actually hurt them by bringing in more competition. That said, opposition forces have also put the state's beleaguered signature industry at risk by not offering realistic ideas to help Kentucky's tracks counter the lucrative incentives and purses that casino states use to lure owners, trainers and horses.
Here's hoping for justice in the Adan Perez case, and that the Sport of Kings, so beloved and important in Kentucky, can get its act together.