LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The man in the spotlight on the eve of Kentucky Derby 140 is exactly the man horse racing probably does not want or need there. Friday, he won the Kentucky Oaks. Saturday, he'll try for the Kentucky Derby. And for horse racing, it could bring a double-shot of new scrutiny.
Before his fantastic filly, Untapable, dominated the Kentucky Oaks in near record time with a 4 1/2-length victory, trainer Steve Asmussen sat across from Bob Costas of NBC Sports to answer questions over alleged cruel treatment of horses and use of medications, questions raised in a video published by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and obtained by an undercover barn worker.
The 9 1/2-minute PETA video, culled from secretly videotaped exchanges over five months, claims Asmussen and then assistant Scott Blasi were cruel to their horses, used medications with them for non-therapeutic purposes and even had a jockey use an electronic device to shock horses into running faster.
Make no mistake, it is a difficult video to watch. Blasi acknowledges how painful electroshock therapy is to horses. It shows widespread administration of injections, tranquilizers and other drugs. It outlines the efforts to keep a horse with tender feet on the track and in training, and Blasi is shown describing how one of his jockeys used a buzzer to shock horses into running. Asmussen is also alleged to have been using undocumented workers. The discourse often is profane, and after the video's release, Asmussen fired Blasi, his long-time friend and assistant.
Ogden Mills Phipps, chairman of The Jockey Club, said he wished Asmussen weren't on a center stage like the Derby at this time.
"His presence and participation would indicate that it's just 'business as usual' in the thoroughbred industry," Phipps said after the release of the video.
This week, Asmussen has declined to specifically address the video or subsequent newspaper stories. But he jumped at the opportunity to speak with Costas, he said, because of the platform it provided.
Three separate times in the interview with Costas, Asmussen repeated that an undercover PETA investigator was in his barn for five months but could prove no specific violations of horse racing rules. He claims the tape was edited to make him and his assistant look bad. When Costas asked him about PETA's allegations, he answered, "It's horribly misleading and untrue, and simply false. For someone to secretly tape me for five months and not come up with one actual rule violation, if you read the complaint, there is not one actual rule violation."
Asked by Costas if he used an electric device to make any horse run faster, Asmussen said, "That is not true. That is absolutely ridiculous. There's governing bodies in the sport to make sure that isn't done. Their (PETA's) stated goal is to abolish horse racing. It's stated goal is to abolish horse racing. They aren't going to get anybody's attention without throwing in the shock value."
When asked why he fired Blasi, Asmussen said it was because he spoke disrespectfully about an owner, not because of any actions.
Asmussen said he was stung by Phipps' comments.
"That's very disappointing," Asmussen said. "I wish he would read over the actual allegations and watch the tape. It is language that you don't want listen to or sit through. But for somebody to be in your barn for five months and secretly tape you and they have some suggestions of wrongdoing and no actual wrongdoing -- the drugs that you were referring to being Lasix and Dantrium, they are therapeutic medications. Lasix is a legal raceday medication on which Orb won the Kentucky Derby last year."
His mention of Orb was on purpose. Orb is owned by Phipps.
Asmussen went further. He said he welcomed any legal proceedings the video might bring.
"Hopefully I do get the chance (to go to court)," he said. "And not only to defend myself. . . . They've definitely opened themselves up with such ridiculous claims."
Asmussen and others have said that the video is edited for maximum effect. PETA shot hours and hours of secret video. The organization has responded that the video in its entirety is even worse, and has made it available to racing officials in New York and says it will do so in Kentucky. PETA's only initial response to Asmussen was a picture of a horse, whose blaze in front was replaced by a white syringe, from the organization's Twitter account.
Asmussen, admittedly stung that the allegations prompted the withdrawal of his name for Horse Racing's Hall of Fame, said, "The most bothersome thing about all this is for anybody to think that I am not a good caregiver. That would be the first thing on my resume."
The trainer was looking for a bigger audience. Now, he has horse racing's biggest audience.
The third-largest Kentucky Oaks day crowd in history, 113,017, watched the splendid filly and daughter of Tapit calmly demolish her competition in the Oaks, sparking some mentions of Rachel Alexandra and questions over whether she might come back in the Preakness.
Asmussen said that he's hoping Tapiture, his Derby horse, will take his place in the Preakness with a strong showing Saturday, and that "it's to our great advantage to keep them separate."
Jockey Rosie Napravnik, who won the Oaks for the second time in three years, had to keep Untapable steady through two disturbances in the gate. In the first, Doug O'Neill's Empress of Midway flipped in the starting gate, throwing jockey Corey Nakatani and becoming stuck before being freed and scratched. Track veterinarian Larry Bramlage afterward said she suffered no serious injury. All of the fillies were taken out of the gate and reloaded, then Fashion Plate momentarily lost her rider before the race went off.
Napravnik said her filly handled it well.
"She stood like a statue," she said. "And when the gate opened, she broke well. She was really great today. We ended up in a great position from the outside post. She runs her best when she can get in a great stride. She relaxes so nice. She's growing up and is maturing. She is magnificent."
My Miss Sophia finished 4 1/2 lengths back in second. In third, a total of 10 1/2 lengths back, was Unbridled Forever.
Asked if her victory brought any thought of vindication or relief, Asmussen said, "I'm just glad that Untapable showed who she is. She's the star today. I'm glad that she came through and showed who she is, and I'm just so happy for her to show who she is on this stage."
Untapable showed who she is. But racing waits uneasily to figure out who Asmussen is, and what will come of the latest questions to its sport.
PETA, certainly, is not the final arbiter of what is acceptable or even proper in horse racing. Its view is that there should be no horse racing. That's not likely to happen.
But clearly, the sport needs further reform and you can't watch the tape from Asmussen's barn without believing that extreme measures are needed in oversight.
With the Kentucky Derby approaching, these aren't the topics officials in the sport want front and center. In a way, Asmussen's victory was a great victory for his filly, but it also was a win for PETA. Its audience just got a bit larger.
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