CORRECTION: The timeline on Nehro’s death is incorrect in the post. He died at five, not at three, but had been plagued by foot trouble his entire life. The fact remains that he was a victim of the system, and my comments on his treatment and subsequent death remain valid.
The racing industry across the pond in America is once again reeling from a black eye the size of a bowling ball, this time inflicted by PETA, the animal-rights group. And the response so far is the same as it always has been when a public-relations disaster strikes: Find a fall guy, distance yourself from the problem, circle the wagons and for god’s sake get those damn journalists off the premisis!
PETA sent an operative with a hidden camera into the employ of super-trainer Steve Asmussen, and the results of four months of spying are pretty damning indeed. The videos released so far show various lamentations over lame horses and various ways to medicate them into some semblance of soundness for racing. Here’s the primary problem: Pretty much everything shown so far is perfectly legal in U.S. racing. And because the source of these revelations is PETA, which has a reputation as being extreme and biased, the horse racing industry is likely to put an ice pack on that black eye and wait for things to be getter rather than trying to reform itself so a similar whacking doesn’t happen again.
Horse racing in the United States is drowning in a cesspool of medication. So much is legal and standard practice that it is nearly impossible to find the cheating that pushes the envelop even further. Racing is a victim of the American medication culture. It seems Americans have an extremely low threshold for pain and an extreme ignorance of the side effects of the drugs they take to make themselves – and their horses – feel better. Here’s a quick lesson: Pain is nature’s STOP sign. Quickly medicating a problem to ease the pain and then continuing to do whatever caused the problem in the first place can only be a recipe for disaster. Injuries need time to heal, and in horse racing, time is money.
In one exerpt of PETA’s video, Asmussen’s assistant trainer Scott Blasi is swearing a blue streak over the state of the feet of a horse called Nehro, who was a favorite for the Kentucky Derby. From what I could understand between the repeated use of the word “fuck,” the horse’s feet were in a terrible state. (By the way, “fuck” is also one of my favorite words, as anyone who knows me can tell you. I do believe, however, that it should be used in a grammatically correct sentence that includes at least two three-syllable words.) Blasi was fighting against time to get this horse to the Derby. I can understand the pressure he was under. But he and his team made every wrong decision for this horse, and he ended up dead of colic not long after. A major cause of colic is stress, and the stress of having to deal with constant pain in his feet probably pushed this horse over the edge – that and the litany of drugs he was given to ease the pain.
Blasi took the fall; he was fired yesterday. Asmussen has closed ranks, and Kentucky Derby press passes exclude access to his barn. The various alphabet-soup organizations that run American racing have all issued statements saying they’ll look into the allegations and abuse will not be tolerated. Everyone will keep their heads down until, like the scandals before them, this one blows over. But this issue hinges on the very definition of abuse. Many involved in U.S. racing think we’re abusing horses over here in Europe because we do NOT allow them to be medicated to ease the pain on race day. I’ve also heard the argument that when somebody pays $1 million for a yearling, it better turn into a racehorse, even if it needs a little “help” along the way. It’s impossible to argue with anybody who thinks like this, because it’s like trying to reason with a toddler.
I’ve been trying to support efforts to reform U.S. horse racing for years, but I’m starting to lose hope. As an American who grew up watching the Triple Crown races, it is so sad to see the sport drive itself into a brick wall, then back up and do it again, and again. Eventually, there will be nothing left to crash. And that would be a shame.