Saturday, April 26, 2014
The Asmussen Saga: My, My
LOS ANGELES, April 26, 2014--Frank Sinatra’s life helped popularize Jimmy Webb’s song, "That’s Life," but Steve Asmussen’s perhaps has epitomized the up-and-down of it all.
"You're riding high in April, shot down in May."
Actually, it was a month earlier when the New York Times and PETA – now to be referred to collectively as the ADHR (Alliance to Destroy Hose Racing) – released the ignominious video that suggested massive misconduct within the Asmussen operation.
At that point, the winningest active trainer had been nominated to the racing Hall of Fame. That nomination was withdrawn, of course, with the four worthiest inductees of 2014 announced Friday, April 25.
"Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race."
Asmussen already had bounced back from a long suspension with the accomplishments that led to his nomination. This is a trainer who not only won with Horse-of-the-Year quality stock but also compiled huge numbers with his far-flung operation, amassing nearly 6,800 career victories.
How many other trainers have worked with so many different horses and have been involved in addressing such a diversity of issues? It’s time to see how he and others fare if asked to compete on a level playing field.
My guess is that he would still be successful; to what degree is the nagging question.
"I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king."
An aside: Remember how early hackers were recruited by their corporate victims to improve the security of the computer systems they once exploited? I wonder if Asmussen, now that he has been accused of egregious acts, fairly or unfairly, might be persuaded to assist in establishing rules that would thwart the kind of behavior allegedly attributed to him.
"Some people get their kicks stomping on a dream."
Among those committing aggravating--if not aggravated--assault on Asmussen’s Derby dream is Steve Davidowitz.
The handicapping icon offered a curious analogy between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s alleged undermining of his underlings to Asmussen assistant Scott Blasi’s abuse of owners and the English language. Davidowitz believes that Asmussen should step away and spare the sport "the maelstrom of negative publicity that will dominate Derby week coverage …"
The problem with that is even with Asmussen on the sidelines, what’s to prevent another suspected "cheater" from filling the void? There’s going to be a "maelstrom" regardless of what Asmussen does on Derby Day. In fact, there is a story in the April 26 edition of the NY Daily News on this issue.
The only way the Asmussen storyline doesn’t overshadow traditional Derby coverage is if critics can be convinced that pro-active steps are taken to prevent foul play by the edge-takers, whether it be owner, trainer, jockey, track executive or even bettors.
That would occur only if creditable professional turf writers work cooperatively in support of that objective.
Apparently "Bill Finley would. In fact, he wants Asmussen’s horse in the Derby so that the story doesn’t go away:
"… It needs to stay alive and force some self-reflection on the part of the sport … so that the industry can't run and hide but, instead, finally deal with a problem … that a culture exists in this game where far too many trainers and owners believe that the way to get to the winner's circle is best accomplished with a needle."
Mr. Finley’s "culture problem" may be too limited in scope. It goes back to the debate about whether racing should be promoted as a sport or gambling game. Many think it’s a mixture of both.
Others regard playing the races as a game of skill, but few seem willing to call this skill what it really is; "edge-taking." Indeed, that’s the basis of parimutuel wagering, gaining an edge on the wagering competition as opposed to other luck-dependent games of chance. Purely and simply, rebated batch bettors are taking an edge with the public.
But putting the lives of horses and riders at risk is reprehensible edge-taking but can we expect those focused on the bottom line to give up whatever edge they think they have while others refuse to give up theirs?
Who can rightfully determine whether a particular edge is legal or not, moral or not? The handling of financial and informational edges remains largely conjecture. The game is always changing. New edges turn up every day.
To his credit, what Davidowitz has contributed to the game was effective instruction to horseplayers as to the importance of using one’s mind to create tools that give them an intellectual leg up over the crowd.
While edge-taking has become pervasive on the backstretch, so has awareness, due in no small part to the efforts of the ADHR’s making use of tactics culled from a Dick Francis novel. The late jockey-turned-author’s cumulative works contain every edge ever attempted, plus a few from the novelist’s fertile imagination. Going undercover was a common tack.
In "Dick Francis’s Refusal," by his son, Felix, there were developments analogous to the Asmussen situation whereby the main character had to fight charges brought against him based on manufactured visual evidence.
Further, the story’s villain extorted cooperation from another character by using staged photographs suggesting scandalous behavior. It was press coverage that was instrumental to the malefactor’s initial success because human nature is ever willing to believe in the worst capabilities of their fellow man.
PETA has raised questions of employee loyalty with all horsemen, be it the prospect of potential undercover agents or those willing to address some grievance by planting evidence. Sadly, the general public seems to be buying into PETA’s claims of widespread abuse. Livelihoods are at risk throughout the industry.
The only cure is cooperative comprehensive change with common goals and objectives. That change will come from within--or with coercion from without.
“And if I didn't think it was worth one single try, I'd jump right up on a big bird and fly”