Racing Regulators Begin Asmussen Investigations
Trainer Steve Asmussen
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse
At least one regulator investigating violations alleged in a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) video posted last month involving the stable of Thoroughbred racehorse trainer Steve Asmussen expects the inquiry to take at least several months.
Racing regulators in New York and Kentucky have launched investigations related to the PETA video that was collected by one of its members while she worked last year for Asmussen. Involved parties say videos were shot at both Churchill Downs, in Louisville, Ky., and Saratoga Race Course, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., over a period of at least four months.
Following PETA's release of some video footage last month, the New York State Gaming Commission (NYSGC) announced it would investigate allegations of abuse and mistreatment of horses by Asmussen and his then-assistant trainer, Scott Blasi. The NYSGC also said it would look into PETA allegations against jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. and track veterinarians Joseph Migliacci, DVM, and James Hunt, DVM.
Lee Park, NYGSC spokesman, said the regulator is declining to comment because of the investigation.
"It's a slow process; we are moving at a fast snail's pace dictated by the PETA organization," said Ward, noting that the animal rights organization might have more videos it plans to release. "We have already done all of our due diligence as far as what we have seen. Our scenario now is to find out what other information they have. That's kind of the same way New York is."
Asmussen's attorney Clark Brewster said PETA has been uncooperative in supplying them with all of the available video.
"PETA has never supplied us with any video or even their complaints," Brewster said. "We've either had to get them from (Freedom of Information Act) requests or the media. We're pursuing all the video available."
Brewster said he and his client have been in contact with regulators from New York and Kentucky: "We've reached out to both New York and Kentucky to let them know that any materials they need, any documents we have, we're completely open. Steve told me to be transparent in every respect. We're supplying any documentation requested and Steve is available to speak with them at any time."
In a March 20 release, the NYSGC said it would investigate allegations of abuse and mistreatment of horses in the Asmussen barn.
New York keeps one of the most transparent databases on equine injuries and deaths in the country, searchable by trainer. According to the database, Asmussen has not had a horse in his care die during a race since the database was launched in the spring of 2009 through its most recent update of April 10 this year.
Looking at stats for the full years available, from 2010 to 2013, Asmussen started 847 horses at New York tracks without a single fatality. During those years, horses suffered fatal breakdowns (as listed in the database) in New York races at a rate of 1 every 438 starts.
The state also keeps track of equine fatalities during training. Using starts to help define a rate for this statistic, horses in New York from 2010 to 2013 broke down at a rate of once every 260 "starts" (for these purposes "starts" count race starts but include fatalities suffered while racing or training for those starts).
Asmussen had five horses die during training from the time the database was launched through 2014. In looking at statistics from the full years available for the trainer (2010 to 2013), Asmussen horses died in racing or training for those races once every 212 "starts," a rate that is 18% higher than the state average.
In New York, PETA filed complaints with the NYSGC alleging veterinarians administered furosemide to horses who did not qualify for the drug, a fact they say Blasi knew.
Like all U.S. racing jurisdictions, New York allows race-day furosemide (Salix, commonly called Lasix) as a medication to prevent or reduce the severity of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. In New York, the state's racing regulations allow it to be administered to any horse that has bled visibly during a race or workout as determined—with or without an endoscopic examination after a race or workout—by a regulatory or attending veterinarian. Horses who were eligible for Salix in another state also are eligible in New York, horses who race on furosemide in their previous start are eligible, and a horse placed on a list for furosemide is eligible.
Since 2010, Asmussen twice has been sanctioned for Salix violations. In January 2010, Asmussen paid a fine of $500 after pleading "no contest" to charges of a Salix overage at Remington Park in Oklahoma. In July of that year, he was fined $100 for giving Salix too close to a race.
The industry website ownerview.com indicates Asmussen has had two other drug positives since 2009 for which he was penalized. Both were for therapeutic medications allowed in the sport, but which have to be out of a horse's system on race day or at a race-day level that does not affect performance. In March 2011 the Maryland Racing Commission fined Asmussen $500 when pyrimethamine, a medication used to treat equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (or EPM), was found in a horse's system on race day. In June of that year Kentucky stewards fined Asmussen $250 for an overage of the anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone (or Bute). Asmussen has had no sanctions for medication violations since that June 2011 fine, a period of nearly three years.
Brewster believes it's telling that PETA has made no allegations involving illegal drugs: "One thing that PETA's not saying is that there was any illegal medication. One thing that they're not saying is that either of these guys or their employees gave any kind of shots, or anything that was wrong in regard to medication. I think that is important to note.
"There's a lot of innuendo, belief among some people who saw the video that something terrible had gone wrong. As a matter of fact, there's no substance to that and not even an accusation of that."
PETA also alleged that jockey Santana used an electrical device, or "machine," to shock horses while riding them for Asmussen. Last year at Saratoga, Santana rode horses trained by Asmussen just three times, including a runner-up finish aboard Mico Margarita in the Amsterdam Stakes. He did not have a win in those three starts. New York investigators will examine those races as well as any alleged incidents during training as state regulations forbid the possession of such electrical or mechanical devices on or near a racetrack.
Brewster said the video conversation of use of electrical devices was just horsemen relaying tall tales. He said it was telling that there was no video of such a device.
"Do you think that if there was a 'machine' being used that this girl, who was in and out of the barn for five months—in their tack room, and with the riders most of the time when they saddled in the morning and afternoons—don't you think we'd have a candid conversation or a picture or something like that in five months?" Brewster questioned.
In Kentucky, PETA alleges a non-veterinarian employed by Asmussen administered a drug to one of his horses and Blasi maintained horses "who were apparently in poor physical condition, in apparent violation of Kentucky's Thoroughbred racing regulations." Ward said Kentucky would examine those allegations as well as any others that come up after watching the available video and meeting with PETA representatives.
Ward said the KHRC will follow rules of due process, which could require months of work.
"It's advancing but not at the rate that the racing public would like to see it advance," Ward said.
KHRC general counsel Susan Speckert is in charge of the investigation and she will be assisted by director of racing Marc Guilfoil and director of enforcement Chris Clark, a former detective with the Kentucky State Police.
Ward also added that the actions of the PETA member who gathered the video also could be examined because Kentucky racing regulations require license holders to report any potential animal abuse as soon as they become aware of it.
Brewster said Asmussen is looking forward to addressing PETA's allegations.
"Does racing have some issues it needs to resolve? Absolutely, and I think Steve would be at the first seat at the table," Brewster said. "I think that needs to be done somewhere along the way. I think all of us in the business know that there are things that can be done better and more transparently for the public. "
PETA also said it filed a complaint with the New York State Education Department (NYSED), which oversees professional licenses. PETA alleges veterinarians "may have excessively administered unwarranted treatment to horses" in Asmussen's barn. The NYSED said it does not comment on any investigations until the results are complete and would not comment if it is undertaking such an investigation.
PETA also alleged in its complaint to NYSED that a track veterinarian allegedly practiced veterinary medicine in New York for 10 years without a license; the PETA complaint does not list the name of that veterinarian. The NYSGC said it would look into the actions of veterinarians Hunt and Migliacci. According to NYSED records, Hunt has had a license since 1981 and Migliacci since 1992.
PETA also lodged complaints with Louisville Metro Animal Services (LMAS). It alleged Asmussen and Blasi "subjected horses to cruel or injurious mistreatment by forcing injured and/or suffering horses to train and/or race, and mutilated horses' legs by 'blistering' the legs with a caustic chemical; PETA also alleged that Santana used a device to shock horses. On April 16 LMAS said it is not pursuing the investigation and has turned over the complaints to the KHRC.
In 2013 at Churchill Downs, Santana had 140 mounts for Asmussen with 35 wins, including stakes victories on Tapiture in the Kentucky Jockey Club and Vuitton in the Open Mind.
PETA also has filed complaints with the Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Kentucky, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Kentucky Labor Cabinet, and the New York Department of Labor alleging violations of minimum wage laws, undocumented workers, false identification, and other related labor law violations.
In 2010 in Texas and in 2011 in Oklahoma, Asmussen was fined for employing an unlicensed groom.
Originally published on BloodHorse.com.
About the Author
Frank Angst is a staff writer for The Blood-Horse magazine. An American Horse Publications three-time winner in best news story category, Angst has covered horse racing for more than a decade. Angst spent ten years at Thoroughbred Times, where he earned awards as that magazine’s senior writer and helped launch Thoroughbred Times TODAY. Besides covering horse racing, Angst enjoys handicapping. Angst has written about sports for more than 20 years, including several seasons covering a nationally ranked Marshall Thundering Herd football team.