Racing commission to investigate Eclipse-winning trainer Asmussen over allegations of cruelty to horses

awincze@herald-leader.comMarch 20, 2014 

Officials with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission confirmed Thursday it will investigate complaints from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals regarding allegations of animal cruelty by Eclipse Award-winning trainer Steve Asmussen and his top assistant Scott Blasi at Churchill Downs.

The response comes in the wake of a New York Times story that documented the reported findings of a PETA investigator who worked undercover in the Asmussen barn for four months in the spring and summer of 2013 at Churchill Downs and Saratoga Race Course. PETA showed the Times more than seven hours of video and a 285-page report about Asmussen's operations on the condition that it not use the investigator's name.

Included in the allegations against Asmussen and Blasi, according to the Times, were "widespread and cavalier" mistreatment of horses, employing undocumented workers, and discussions of having a jockey use an illegal electronic device on mounts.

The piece also centered on alleged over-medication of the barn's horses, although most of the medications mentioned — specifically the anti-bleeder medication Lasix — are legal and have therapeutic use.

In a statement, KHRC spokesperson Dick Brown said the commission staff "had not yet had the opportunity to review the information."

The statement also said, "The KHRC takes allegations of cruelty to animals very seriously. When our racing stewards are notified of any possible activity that involves cruelty to horses at licensed facilities, the stewards take prompt action to investigate and take the appropriate action.

"The KHRC will conduct a thorough investigation of these allegations and take appropriate steps once that investigation is concluded."

In a follow-up interview, KHRC executive director John Ward stressed the investigation would be "very methodical" and did not put a time frame on its possible conclusion.

The New York State Gaming Commission also announced Thursday it has undertaken a formal investigation. The Office of Veterinary Affairs, led by Equine Medical Director Scott E. Palmer, VMD, is assisting in the investigation.

"The behavior depicted in the undercover video and supporting materials is disturbing and disgusting," Palmer said. "We are working to determine what happened and ensure that proper protocols are put in place to prevent such actions from taking place again."

Several industry organizations also weighed in on the allegations. The Jockey Club issued a statement saying it "may deny any or all of the privileges of The American Stud Book to any person or entity when ... there is a final determination by an official body that such person has committed an act of cruelty to a horse or violated applicable statutes or regulations regarding the care and treatment of a horse."

A joint statement issued on behalf of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, and Racing Medication and Testing Consortium said, "The attitudes and actions alleged in the story are not representative of the overwhelming majority of participants in our sport who care deeply for the horses they own or train and conduct their business affairs in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations."

Breeders' Cup Limited also released a statement from its president and CEO, Craig Fravel: "While the individuals involved are entitled to due process after a fair and impartial investigation, much of the alleged behavior depicted in today's news accounts is unacceptable, deeply troubling and, we believe, not a reflection of the way we strive as an industry to properly care for our horses."

The alleged treatment of Nehro, the runner-up in the 2011 Kentucky Derby who died because of colic on the morning of the 2013 Kentucky Derby, was a focus of a nine-minute, 30-second video PETA posted on its website regarding its findings.

Ahmed Zayat, owner of Nehro, posted on his Twitter account, "I am shocked, heart broken. I need to learn the facts here."

Clark Brewster, a lawyer representing both Asmussen and Blasi, told the New York Times, "It is certainly a surprise to Mr. Asmussen and Mr. Blasi that anyone would deceptively get a job and keep surveillance and their notes on their conduct for the agenda of others.

"They will reserve comment with regard to any accusations until they have had the opportunity to fully review them. Then they will respond factually."

Asmussen, who has conditioned such top runners as two-time Horse of the Year Curlin and 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, is a finalist this year for induction into Racing's Hall of Fame.

Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.

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