Steve Asmussen's nomination for racing's Hall of Fame raises many of the same issues baseball's Hall of Fame electorate faced with Barry Bonds and other steroid cheaters. Are statistics enough for election or should other factors be considered.
MIAMI, March 12, 2014--The nomination of Steve Asmussen as one of the finalists for induction into racingâ€™s Hall of Fame has put voters into the same position the Baseball Writers Association has dealt with when considering the candidacies for Cooperstown of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemmons, et al.
On the numbers, Asmussen belongs. He is the second winnigest trainer of all time with more than 6,700 victories and counting. Asmussen, 48, has averaged more than 300 winners for the past three years, so Dale Bairdâ€™s record of 9,445 is within reach.
Asmussen set a record with 555 wins in 2004, breaking Jack Van Bergâ€™s mark that had stood for 28 years. Asmussen topped himself in 2008 with 621 wins then did it again the following year with 650. He has led America nine times.
He conditioned Curlin to a triumph in the Preakness and Horse of the Year titles in 2007 and 2008. He added a third Horse of the Year laurel with Rachel Alexander in 2009. He won Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer in 2008 and 2009.
Itâ€™s hard to imagine a nominee with stronger credentials.
But then, itâ€™s even more difficult to come up with stronger career baseball credentials than Bonds. But a Hall of Fame in any sport is about more than statistics, or should be. This is why Bonds and other steroid users havenâ€™t come close to election to baseballâ€™s Hall and probably never will.
They have been stigmatized as cheaters, just as Asmussen has been in racing. He has had scores of violations. Many are relatively minor, trace overages in an era of zero tolerance or failure to clear a horseâ€™s system within the advertised time.
But he was suspended for six months by Louisiana in 2006 when one of his horses came back with 750 times the legal limit for the potent pain killer mepvicaine. He also drew a six-month suspension in Texas when one of his horses tested positive for lidocaine.
Asmussen has denied many of the allegations. In the Louisiana case, he made the sensible argument that no one in his right mind would administer a drug 750 times over the limit on race day. He suggested that someone jealous of his success might have sabotaged him in a stable area with lax security.
Lending credence to this defense is the fact he has so many strings all over the map, there is no way he could be on top of the situation in every venue. But racing holds trainers responsible for anything that goes on in their barns, even if they were thousands of miles away.
All of this has made him one of the poster children for media anxious to put down racing as drug-ravaged. The New York Times, in one of its regular cheap shots at racing, made him a focus for a pre-Breedersâ€™ Cup hatchet job. HBOâ€™s Real Sports did a piece on his numerous suspensions.
If Asmussen is elected to the Hall, these pieces will be dusted off, repeated and updated. Since other media use the Times as their compass, there will be enough bandwagon-jumping to start a parade.
Coincidentally, Asmussen is nominated for the Hall on the same ballot as the late Chris Antley. This would represent another ripe target for those out to disparage racing as a bottomless pit of pharmaceuticals.
Antley had a sparkling career as a rider. Included was an unmatched streak of winning at least once for 64 consecutive racing days in 1989 and Kentucky Derby wins aboard Strike the Gold and Charismatic. The photo of Antley, dismounted from Charismatic and giving aid and comfort to the horse, who broke down while pursuing the Triple Crown in the 1998 Belmont Stakes, put a lump in many throats.
But Antleyâ€™s life and career were marred by drug abuse. He had his license suspended several times for positive tests for cocaine and marijuana. He quit riding in 1997 to deal with his narcotics demons. He came back two years later but on March 19, 2000, he rode what would turn out to be his final race at Santa Anita. He asked the California stewards for time off to deal with personal issues.
The next time his name was heard was when he was found dead in his home on Dec. 2, 2000, at age 34. The cause of death was ruled an overdose of a cocktail of drugs. One was to deal with weight loss, a common malady among race riders, another juicy target for scandal mongers.
Is an admitted drug abuser and by extension a law-breaker someone you want in your Hall of Fame?
So Hall of Fame voters face a conundrum. Do they cast their votes for a couple of inarguably qualified individuals on the basis of their records or do they take into consideration the scandals that have sullied their careers.
The Baseball Writers Association has obviously decided that statistics arenâ€™t the sole criteria to be considered when casting Hall of Fame ballots. It will be interesting to see how racingâ€™s electors handle the situation.
The New York Times, HBO and others in the media will be watching.