Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Asmussen Scandal: Woe Must Become WHOA
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 25, 2014--When HRI was taking a stand for federal regulation of racing and against race-day Lasix a couple of years ago, the argument made by one pro-Lasix horseman on a national radio show was that perception doesn’t matter.
Humans take aspirins for a headache, he said, and we treat horses with Lasix because it “helps prevent” bleeding. That’s disingenuous, of course, and the host never followed up with “but don’t horses sometimes bleed through Lasix?”
Manifestos and pronouncements have appeared daily since the infamous PETA video was released last week. One of the best was penned by Barry Weisbord., who wants to create an alliance of the willing to set American standards based on the Hong Kong model.
“Racing is a privilege, not a right,” Weisbord wrote. For lovers of the horse, truer thoughts were never conceived.
Weisbord introduced his thoughts by quoting Howard Beale, the fictional anchor in Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant piece, “Network,” who, after losing it on national television, demanded his audience go open their windows and shout “we’re mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore.”
Personally, it compelled me to harken back to the early days of television when the anti-littering “Keep America Beautiful” campaign was first introduced, questioning the audience with: “It’s enough to make you sick, isn’t it enough to make you stop?”
As messengers go, PETA deserves shooting. But did it put the words “they all get it…it makes them lighter…it’s a performance enhancer” in the mouth of a prominent veterinarian commenting on the rampant use of Lasix?
Did it make Scott Blasi say that thyroxine “keeps the thyro level up, makes ‘em feel good”? Or that “shockwave therapy deadens pain…that’s why you can’t use it close to [race day]”.
Or of a horse thought wrongfully scratched: “I’ll f… [the stewards] next time. I’ll put a gel cast on and I’ll make it look good as I [expletive deleted] can?” Or that you can purchase a fraudulent social security card for “like 60 or 70 bucks a person.”
Did the undercover investigator force a farrier to say of Kentucky Derby runnerup “his foot is a little bitty nub…he lost z-bars [protective horseshoes] on both feet multiple times…he had bloody holes in the bottom of his feet…[the foot’s] been like that for three months from putting a z-bar over it…it rotted.”
If racing’s leaders don’t collectively acknowledge that it doesn’t matter what is proven-- or even admissible--in a court of law, and that this will be the perception of horse racing at its worst, they’re either being obtuse or have taken their love of money and prestige to an unconscionable new level.
Or completely missed the point that this is out there for the entire world to misinterpret if they wish.
A self-appointed commission at taxpayer expense found Gov. Chris Christie innocent in the bridge-gate scandal, Treyvon Martin wasn’t murdered, and horse racing doesn’t have problems real and imagined.
This video is such a sweeping indictment of the industry that it can compel the general public to feel good about itself by shutting the whole thing down. If social media can create an “Arab Spring,” it can make an already marginalized industry completely disappear.
The only court that matters now is the court of public opinion.
Every horseman I know rejects the notion that horses are unwilling participants. Of course, top class horses receive the very best of care, and the money generated by the horse industry helps pay for the cost of research that helps horses everywhere.
But as the Nehro example shows, big money and prestige is no guarantor against abuse. In fact, big purses often can blur the line between soundness and “racing soundness.”
If racing does not set the agenda on horse welfare the feds or the public will. Political organizations like PETA will have their ear. The responsibility for the welfare of horses extends beyond racing, but the industry should show society how to do it right and not run for cover as it always has.
Like the man said, it’s a privilege, not a right.
The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame obviously was correct to table Steve Asmussen’s nomination with whip-lash speed in response to investigations launched by New York and Kentucky.
The Thoroughbred Racing Associations reiterated its position that persons who mistreat horses and rules violators should be dealt with swiftly and severely. The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium called for the unanimous adoption of uniform rules and penalties from state to state under the auspices of Racing Commissioners International.
The Jockey Club, NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance, and the Jockeys' Guild have all weighed in, as did Breeders’ Cup, which jumped on the anti-Lasix bandwagon again despite caving in to horsemen’s demands that the use of raceday Lasix be continued or they would boycott the Breeders’ Cup entry box.
Sadly, commerce always wins, so says another fictional character, Jerry in "Killing Them Softly." Brad Pitt demands money that's owed him while POTUS makes a patriotic speech on television that serves as a backdrop to the bar scene, to drive home the point: "America's not a country, it's a business."
The Jockey Club is the one with the clout here, owning the right to deny access to the American Stud Book to any individual that has committed an act of cruelty to a horse or violated regulations regarding its care and treatment, and the organization should use its power appropriately and swiftly.
Andrew Cohen of the Atlantic wrote of three categories of horsemen as he sees it: the cheaters, a small group but large enough to stain racing’s integrity; the innocents, another small group that’s too naïve to even help itself, and the “far-too-silent majority,” who see the wrong but “won't give their all to right it.”
Or as the non-fictional Edmund Burke wrote: "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
There were comments from outspoken Barry Irwin who said he fears “the aftermath of the PETA video presentation will be the most severe removal of a layer of the once prestigious patina under which our sport thrived for so many years.” And that it’s up to the owners who make the game go to right the wrongs.
Irwin, a prominent owner who has worked behind the scenes to push for Congressional action, is more naïve than noble if he believes that the underlying commonality among owners is “a desire for competition in an arena witnessed by fans and peers alike that offers owners a considerable amount of prestige.”
Would that include an owner like Ron Winchell, whose racing manager David Fiske said that taking Tapiture and Untapable away from Asmussen now “would not be in the best interest of the horses?”
It’s clear that Winchell and Fiske’s eyes remain focused squarely on the prize: the equity created by having a Kentucky Derby or Oaks winner in the barn. The bottom line is their own self interests that matter most, not the world's most famous horse race.
Never mind the best interests of an industry that never has needed solidarity more than it does now. Never mind that their trainer will be the mother of all distractions when PETA barbarians assemble at the gates of Churchill Downs for all the national television exposure it can get.
I’m wondering if Mr. Irwin has considered the possibility of penalizing owners who benefit financially by knowingly employing trainers strongly suspected of taking an edge?
“All horses should run without Lasix on raceday,” a track executive told me the other day. “We need to go back to hay, oats and water so that our greatest trainers win at 20 percent, not 30 percent. Ten guys are making all the money; everyone else is starving.”
While there was no mainstream media coverage to speak of—thank you NCAA---the Schenectady Gazette had it right in an op-ed, stating “more important is what the video portends for the racing industry as a whole: If these attitudes and practices are pervasive, there may be no fixing it.”
The industry needs to address perceptions such as this immediately.
Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle said last week that it's apparent that a blend of self-regulation and toothless state regulation has been a huge failure. “If racing is to be cleaned up and the public's confidence restored, independent, national oversight—with meaningful penalties for violators—is the only pathway.”
Pacelle then called on Congress to pass enabling legislation reining in abuses and holding the industry accountable.
Thus far, Weisbord and Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural have the best ideas. As part of this new association of racetracks, Weisbord’s calling for the new consortium to have the right to create, employ, enforce, and adjudicate a code of best practices as is done in major sports, focusing on the well-being of the horses and the people who care for them.
He wants horses to be taken care of before, during and after their racing careers and that any discussion about the continued use of therapeutic raceday medications ends, and at other times be administered in a controlled, sensible manner by track-employed veterinarians.
Weisbord wants racing associations to own their own pharmacy with all medications and procedures approved by the track to come from that pharmacy and for that racing to be conducted on a limited, non-year-round basis; less racing with more quality.
Finally, the new racing association would have the right to rescind anyone’s privilege to race if they are deemed to be a detriment to the sport. He concedes that this is not going to be the solution for all of American racing. Others can stay on the present path if they choose, but allow free market conditions to decide what is defensible and sellable.
Ultimately the model would prosper because racing will offer the American public what it wants; racing with integrity, without drugs, and one that bettors feel comfortable gambling on, a sport to be proud of again.
If only Weisbord had the power to lock all forward-thinking industry types in a room, allowing them to return to their families only after a best practices accord has been reached.
For his part, Gural believes this is an animal welfare issue but hasn't hesitated to rid his racetracks of cheaters. He was first to conduct out of competition testing, using his own money to pay for it. [Notably, Gulfstream Park recently became the first thoroughbred track to conduct out of competition (random) testing].
Gural, who testified before a 2012 Senate hearing on drugs in racing, doesn’t wait for racing commissions to take action against cheaters. (Tracks are private property and as such can ban undesirables). He has blood samples shipped to the best testing facilities available, not just those approved by the states.
One argument against raceday mediation is that it would help America conform to international standards. But no one lives in a bubble on this issue and Europeans are not above the fray.
Paul Bittar, the British Horseracing Authority’s chief executive, said that the time has come for regulators to take “a strong stand” against steroids by outlawing them completely, something that was achieved here in the wake of the Dutrow affair.
If someone approached me on the street to ask about the PETA video I’d be hard pressed to defend what I saw, no matter how many legal holes were contained within the video. The bottom line for me is that the condensed 9-minute tape is a huge indictment of business-as-usual.
Unless reform with the scope of the suggestions above is put into action, and unless thoroughbred organizations and tracks do everything they can to change the way horses and backstretch workers are currently treated, this problem never will not go away and the industry is doomed. Bettors, fans and owners already have walked away for a lot less.
Racing on hay, oats and water is the only remedy that’s acceptable now, the general public will demand no less, nor should they. I always believed that the game was too big to fail. I no longer believe that nor should anyone else.
We are all privileged to enjoy a way of life that stirs emotions and passion within us all. Passion is priceless. Racing’s critics will not abandon their agenda. How business is conducted must change or the game’s demise is inevitable.
Written by John Pricci