John Clay: Controversial Asmussen might not be able to avoid spotlight much longer

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 1, 2014 

LOUISVILLE — It is Thursday morning, one day before the Kentucky Oaks, two days before the Kentucky Derby, and it is surprisingly quiet at the barn that houses the infamous trainer who was supposed to be the week's dominant story.

A print reporter and a TV reporter wait outside Barn 38 for Steve Asmussen, but even the television reporter gives up and takes off for Uncle Sigh's barn for Plan B.

Finally, Asmussen appears in a blue riding helmet and dismounts. He chats with NBC's Donna Brothers, the former jockey, then takes a step toward the barn, only to see the reporter.

"Steve, got a minute?"

"Sure," he says.

Just not for what you really want to talk about. Asmussen has no time for the prevailing story line — PETA's 91/2-minute undercover video that portrayed the Asmussen barn as a pharmaceutical factory exhibiting a cruel and callous attitude toward the animals left in their care.

Upon arriving at Churchill a couple of weeks back, Asmussen let it be known he would not address the PETA video, released in late March. Thanks to that, plus other secret tapes (i.e., Donald Sterling), not to mention our general short attention span, the Asmussen story hasn't been the all-consuming tabloid many predicted it would be.

And yet when the Kentucky Oaks commences Friday afternoon, Asmussen could be the center of attention again.

After all, he trains Untapable, the 4-5 morning-line favorite, meaning he could easily be standing in the track's winner's circle holding up the Oaks trophy.

What sort of message would that send?

Or what if on Saturday, the Asmussen-trained Tapiture, who won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill last year, triumphs in the world's most famous Thoroughbred race?

Asmussen isn't biting.

"It's a unique opportunity to try and stay focused (on) what we have control over," said the 48-year-old trainer when asked about his week.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has an obvious agenda. PETA makes no secret of its desire to shut down horse racing. Using aggressive undercover tactics is a means to justify its end.

Meanwhile, Asmussen is a hanging curveball. He trained champions Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, but also owns a laundry list of medical violations and subsequent suspensions.

The real video villain was Scott Blasi, Asmussen's longtime assistant trainer who was quickly fired and with good reason. The secret recordings showed Blasi to be a foul-mouthed hothead, easily frustrated.

And yet, the video is an edited nine minutes of a four-month investigation that falls short of a "smoking gun" in terms of physical abuse. I've heard coaches in off-the-record interviews talk about their players in the same vein Blasi talks about his horses.

In one scene, the video portrays the lack of "pulse" in a horse's foot as negative, when it is actually a positive sign.

Since the New York Times posted the video, many trainers have come to Asmussen's defense. Only one owner, Ahmed Zayat, has handed Asmussen a pink slip, while others have spoken out on the trainer's behalf.

"Beyond good," Asmussen said Thursday when asked about the support.

Bottom line: Drugs are the real problem here. We're not talking illegal drugs. We're talking the regular and unnecessary use of legal drugs. Until horse racing settles on a meaningful fix, it will suffer the steady drumbeat of a well-deserved perception problem.

Ogden "Dinny" Phipps, co-owner of last year's Kentucky Derby winner, Orb, and chairman of the Jockey Club, suggested Asmussen should stay away from the Derby and Oaks, that his presence would be too much of a distraction.

That hasn't been the case. The sports world has been too distracted to give Steve Asmussen its full attention.

That could change, of course, if he ends up being the one standing in the Derby winner's circle.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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