Clouds of controversy loom over Churchill Downs during Derby week
LOUISVILLE -- Kentucky Derby week dawned Monday morning beneath black storm clouds and awash in Biblical rains, a metaphorically resonant start to what is always the most visible and significant six days on the horse racing calendar. At shortly before 6:30 a.m., thoroughbred trainer Steve Asmussen, 48, sat astride a stable pony to supervise the workout of his Derby horse, Tapiture. Thunder cracked and lightning illuminated the darkened sky. Asmussen was resoundingly part man, part symbol.
It has been 41 days since The New York Times published the results of an undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in which PETA accused Asmussen and his top assistant trainer, Scott Blasi, of subjecting the horses in their care to harmful and injurious treatment, administering medication for nontherapeutic reasons, approving a jockey's use of a banned electrical ''buzzer'' to make his mount run faster and falsifying official papers for the purpose of employing undocumented workers. The Times and PETA also posted a nearly 10-minute video on their respective websites, highlighting obvious bad behavior, most of it by Blasi. (The video was culled by PETA from seven hours of footage filmed by its undercover investigator).
The weeks since have been filled with industry-wide anguish, which has run the gamut from outrage at Asmussen and Blasi for their behavior, to outrage at PETA for its aggressive tactics. Both the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and the New York State Gaming Commission have launched investigations into PETA's allegations, and both The Jockey Club (a 120-year-old organization comprised mostly of thoroughbred owners) and the Stronach Group (the owner of several major North American racetracks) have announced plans for increased transparency in the use of medication on horses. Asmussen fired Blasi -- who was not just his assistant, but also his friend -- after 18 years together.
And in a tragic sidebar, nine days after the publication of the PETA report, Harry Hubbard (Hub) Johnson, 27, who had worked as a barn foreman for Asmussen at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., committed suicide. Johnson was a passionate horse lover who had attended veterinary school for a year, had done research for a study on breakdown rates in two-year-olds and had been planning a career in racing. Johnson's mother, Kirsten Johnson, who owns the Kentucky Equine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center in Lexington, said, "My son loved the horse. He loved all aspects of the horse industry. He loved working for Steve Asmussen and Scott Blasi. He loved getting up at 4:30 in the morning and going to the barn. He loved rubbing Tapiture's legs. He was a truly good person who would have made a difference in the sport."
The sport, meanwhile, has been left floundering at the one time that it customarily manages to snag a precious few minutes on the crowed stage of major U.S. sports. Asmussen is one of the most successful trainers in U.S thoroughbred history, with more than 6,700 winners and $216 million in earnings. He's also run afoul of racing's drug regulations before; in 2006 he was suspended for six months by the Louisiana Racing Commission for a medication infraction. The fact that he will saddle starters in not only the Derby, but also in Friday's Kentucky Oaks for three-year-old fillies, ensures that attention will paid to his complex role in the ongoing controversy. This will be viewed by some as accentuating a negative storyline and by others as illuminating an issue that desperately needs resolution. But there is little doubt that the controversy has hijacked a piece of the Derby.
Asmussen, the man at the center of the storm, has made few public statements beyond confirming Blasi's termination via text message to several media outlets on March 22. On Monday morning, I approached Asmussen, whom I have interviewed on several occasions, and asked him about the last 41 days.
SI.com: "How have these last few weeks been for you?"
Asmussen: "I'm just here to worry about today. You can't worry about outside elements. Just do what you can do."
SI.com: "You and your family have been at this a long time. That video and that story made your business look bad. Were you angry, embarrassed? What did you take from it?"
Asmussen: "I just don't think this is the time or the place to address it. I think the preparation of these horses for a once in a lifetime opportunity is the focus. And that's what I'm going to concentrate on right now."
SI.com: "Let me just suggest that this is the one time when everybody is paying attention. I have a platform to write about the sport right now. Nobody will read what I write in July or September or November."
Asmussen: "All we need is more information, like anything. We need more information."
SI.com: "Information about what?"
Asmussen: "Everything. The situation. But right now the focus is on this. Commenting on that would be not as informed as I should be."
SI.com: "I hope you understand why I'm asking you these things right now."
Asmussen: "I 100-percent understand. But with all due respect, these horses deserve this opportunity."
SI.com: "You could take a few minutes to talk about this, and it really wouldn't affect the preparation of these horses."
Asmussen: "Yeah, but mentally I'm not there. I'm looking at the Weather Channel, and when is it going to rain? And how are the horses doing. My focus is there. Not on that."
The backstretch community remains divided. One of the horses at the center of the PETA video was 2011 Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro, whose chronic foot problems are described by Blasi in excruciating detail. Nehro, who subsequently died of colic at age five, was owned by Ahmed Zayat, who says he was never told about any of Nehro's problems by Asmussen or Blasi. "One of the things I took from the video was that everything I was told about Nehro, by Steve or Scott, was a total lie, from A to Z," says Zayat. Five days after the release of the PETA video, Zayat transferred the 12 horses that he had in Asmussen's care to other trainers.
"My reaction to the video was horror and disgust, and I was very upset," says Zayat, who owns 130 racehorses. "There was a trust that was violated." Yet, as a measure of the complexity of the issues, Zayat also says, "I got a tremendous amount of pressure from other owners, to not abandon [Asmussen]," says Zayat. "I asked some of them, 'Have you even watched the video?' They would say no. It was mind-boggling to me. Mind. Boggling."
Yet some people who have seen the video and are less than convinced by its evidence, and are mistrusting of PETA's methods. "It's a black eye for racing," says three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert. "But that's only if you watch the video without any explanation." Baffert's inference is that less than ten minutes of video taken from seven hours if filming leaves any subject vulnerable to moments of apparent impropriety and begs for contextual framing. He's neither entirely wrong nor entirely right. PETA works in absolutes of black and white to forcefully push agendas; yet most of the world is gray.
However, PETA vice president Kathy Guillermo says, "The video not only accurately reflects Scott Blasi's behavior, but it's been downsized. We have much more footage. We just chose a representative sample." Guillermo said that PETA does not have immediate plans to release more video footage. "We're hoping for significant reform," she said. "We're encouraged by all the discussion that's taken place."
Jimmy Jerkens, whose colt, Wicked Strong, won the Wood Memorial on April 5 and will be among the favorites in Saturday's Derby, has racing blood coursing through his veins. His father, H. Allen Jerkens, 85, has been training since the late 1940s, often with Jimmy at his side. (Jimmy was a 14-year-old on the day at Saratoga when his dad's horse, Onion, upset Secretariat in the 1973 Whitney Handicap.) Jimmy saw the PETA video, too. "It did a good job of making racing look terrible," says Jerkens. "It was shocking. It vilified everybody, especially Scott. In the video, Scott talked a lot of crap. Well, a lot of people talk crap at the racetrack but they're not getting filmed.
"I'm not saying there aren't things we need to do," says Jerkens. "There are things that we need to do. There's too much medication in the sport. And some people are probably deliberately getting an edge. In any competitive field, people will get an edge. We need to do something about that."
As horse racing's popularity among major U.S. sports has waned in recent years, the Derby has been an on oasis of narrative fascination. Whether it was New York-bred gelding Funny Cide's six high school-buddy owners in 2003, or Smarty Jones' septuagenarian owner and hard-luck training stories in '04 or Barbaro's dominating Derby victory and subsequent fight for life after he injured himself in the Preakness in '06, or Mine That Bird's astonishing upset at 50-1 odds in '09 (about which a movie has been made), there has been a steady stream of stories.
There are more available in 2014: Likely Favorite California Chrome and his 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman, who is back in Louisville for the first time in 60 years; Jerkens's Wicked Strong, with deep Boston connections; and the owners of Uncle Sigh donate a percentage of winnings to wounded war veterans.
But there's been another Derby trend as well. When Big Brown won the Derby (and then the Preakness) in 2008, his story devolved into a tale of steroids and greed. Four years later, I'll Have Another was muddied by trainer Doug O'Neill's long rap sheet, much of it drug-related. And last year, the customarily gregarious Baffert was nearly mute, while preparing to explain why six of his horses had died of heart attacks in California. (Baffert was later absolved of any wrongdoing by the California Horse Racing Board). Asmussen is neither as evil as one short video makes him appear, nor a beacon of rectitude in a complicated world.
The common thread in this story, as in so many other sports, is drugs. In racing, they call it "medication," which unintentionally seems to whitewash an ugly subculture. It is the one subject that can eat the Derby. Make no mistake, Steve Asmussen is right about one thing: We need more information. And the search might overwhelm the rest of the sport.