Owner calls Asmussen's response to cruelty investigation 'unacceptable'

awincze@herald-leader.comMarch 25, 2014 

One day after announcing he was removing his horses from the care of Eclipse Award-winning trainer Steve Asmussen, owner Ahmed Zayat issued a detailed response to the allegations against his now former conditioner by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Zayat posted on Twitter Monday that he was pulling 12 horses from Asmussen's barn in the wake of an investigation by PETA that was published in last Thursday's New York Times. The horses have been dispersed among trainers Dale Romans, D. Wayne Lukas and Michael Wilson with Romans taking over training duties on Prayer for Relief, who is slated to run Saturday in the Grade II New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds.

PETA's report and video heavily focused on Zayat Stables' Nehro, runner-up in the 2011 Kentucky Derby, who was trained by Asmussen. The video showed what appeared to be a discussion between Asmussen's former top assistant Scott Blasi and an unidentified blacksmith discussing the poor condition of Nehro's feet and featured several callous remarks in apparent reference to Zayat himself by Blasi.

In a release issued Tuesday, Zayat said he and his racing managers were never made aware of Nehro's foot problems and that Asmussen's response when Zayat reached out to him last week was "unacceptable."

Nehro died because of a bout of colic in May 2013.

"I am shocked, hurt, and disappointed beyond belief to think that some of the things on that video happened to any of my horses, especially Nehro," Zayat said. "As soon as the story broke Wednesday evening, I texted Steve (Asmussen) to find out what was going on. I never heard back so I sent him more messages Thursday morning to call me, and he still had yet to get back to me by midday. I finally told him he needs to call me right now. When I was able to get Steve on the phone that afternoon, the first thing that came out of his mouth was that he hadn't seen the video yet and could not speak on behalf of Scott Blasi. It was mind-boggling to me the reaction. I got nowhere with him, and that's completely irresponsible and unacceptable to me.

"At no point during Nehro's career did Steve Asmussen communicate or suggest to us that Nehro be retired," Zayat continued. "I never even had the slightest idea that anything could be wrong with Nehro's feet. I have moved my horses to other trainers, and I am evaluating with my advisors what other rights I may have or actions I should take in connection with this matter."

Zayat's statement added that Blasi, who was let go by Asmussen last week after the story broke, apologized to him via text message last Friday "for my obscene comments and embarrassment to you and your family."

When reached for comment Tuesday, Clark Brewster, a Tulsa, Okla.-based attorney representing Asmussen and Blasi, said "Mr. Zayat is a fine man, and if he was unaware of a particular condition of a horse ... and to the extent that was not communicated to him, that rests with the trainer. On behalf of Mr. Asmussen, we apologized to him."

The racing commissions in Kentucky and New York have each launched investigations after PETA filed complaints in both jurisdictions alleging charges of cruelty along with mistreatment of staff by Asmussen and Blasi. Brewster said the alleged violations lodged by PETA "are just a fallacy."

"They (PETA) gave this very vivid video to the public but when you look at the substance of the complaint, it's pathetic," Brewster said. "We will defend on the merits of Steve complying with the rules and we'll deal with the facts as they truly are, not what PETA wants them to be."

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

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