John Clay: Asmussen denies wrongdoing, then wins the Oaks

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 2, 2014 

LOUISVILLE — Steve Asmussen may have got what he wanted Friday, a win in the 140th Kentucky Oaks, but so too did PETA.

Both can thank Untapable for that.

Under a perfect ride by Rosie Napravnik, the brilliant 3-year-old filly stalked the leaders, then accelerated almost effortlessly to record the second-fastest winning time in the history of the race.

So there front and center was Asmussen, the winning trainer, and recent subject of an undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which produced a video documenting alleged abuse toward horses in Asmussen's barn.

Given that, what did winning the Kentucky Oaks mean to the trainer?

"Under the circumstances," Asmussen told NBC immediately after the race, "it meant a great deal."

It probably meant a great deal to PETA, too, in the form of more attention to its crusade against the sport.

So what did Asmussen have to say to those who didn't want to see him in the spotlight during the weekend when the world pays its most attention to the sport?

"I'm just glad that Untapable showed who she is," said Asmussen in the post-race news conference. "She's the star today."

If Untapable is the star, her trainer is the lightning rod. To PETA and the critics, he is the poster boy for what's wrong with the sport, from the overuse of drugs to callous treatment of helpless animals.

So damaging and controversial were the allegations, Ogden "Dinny" Phipps, chairman of the Jockey Club, went on record as saying it would be better if Asmussen didn't come to Churchill Downs for the Oaks and the Derby.

Asmussen ignored the request and after declining to answer PETA questions during the week, he sat with NBC's Bob Costas for an interview that aired before the Oaks.

Asmussen called the allegations "hurtful." He denied wrongdoing. He even took a shot at Phipps, co-owner of the 2013 Kentucky Derby winner, saying "Lasix is a legal race-day medication which Orb won the Kentucky Derby on last year."

Asmussen has never won the Derby, but he did win the Oaks back in 2005 with Summerly. Winchell Thoroughbreds owned Summerly then as it owns Untapable now.

"We have a long history with the Asmussen family that dates back to my father," Ron Winchell, whose father Verne got the family into horse racing, said after the Oaks win. "I've been comfortable with everything I've experienced. I can only speak on things from my perspective. If I thought otherwise, we wouldn't be standing here today."

Asmussen claimed the "circumstances" he was referring to meant his filly becoming keyed up in the paddock, the problem in the starting gate when Empress of Midway flipped and had to be scratched, the size of the crowd, and the talent in the Oaks field.

The man who trained Curlin and Rachel Alexandra dismissed the notion that this win was any more significant — "The one at the moment is the one you're excited about," he said — or satisfying than his others.

"I've known Steve a long time and every time we've had a significant win, he always says the same thing," Winchell said. "This moment right now is the greatest and he kind of lives in that moment."

"I can't speak for him and what it means to him," said Winchell racing manager David Fiske. "It means a great deal to us. But he's been under a pretty even strain; I think is the phrase they used in The Right Stuff."

That Untapable is made of such great stuff won't do anything to lessen the sport's strain. Asmussen's victory in such a high-profile race only brings more attention to PETA's video and its cause.

And Asmussen will be right back at Churchill on Saturday trying to pull off an Oaks-Derby double when he saddles Tapiture, another Winchell Thoroughbred.

A Derby win would be another PETA win, as well.

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

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