The Ugly Truth About Horse Racing

An exposé by PETA, published in The New York Times, shows a side of the sport that the industry has tried hard to shield from public view. 
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Churchill Downs / Reed Palmer Photography / AP

There are essentially three types of people in horse racing. There are the crooks who dangerously drug or otherwise abuse their horses, or who countenance such conduct from their agents, and who then dare the industry to come catch them. Then there are the dupes who labor under the fantasy that the sport is broadly fair and honest. And there are those masses in the middle—neither naive nor cheaters but rather honorable souls—who know the industry is more crooked than it ought to be but who still don't do all they can to fix the problem.

The first category, the cheaters, are a small, feral minority still large enough to stain the integrity of the sport for everyone else. The second category, the innocents, also a small group, are more or less hopeless—if they haven't figured out by now they are being wronged they likely never will. So it is from the third category of horsemen and horsewomen, the far-too-silent majority, the good people who see wrong but won't give their all to right it, where serious reform must come if the sport is to survive and thrive.

And that's why exposés about the abuse of racehorses, like the one posted last week by Joe Drape in The New York Times, are so important. They don't aim to offer salvation to the unholy or to rouse the ignorant from their slumber. They speak directly instead to the many good and honest people in horse racing whose consciences are still in play. And they say to those respectable people, in essence, "You are fooling only yourself if you think the whole world isn't aware of and repulsed by what nasty business you allow to go on inside your sport." 

The Clubhouse Turn

The story in question, "PETA Accuses Two Trainers of Cruelty," came on like a thunderclap and is profound for many reasons. First, the video upon which it is based allows people to see for themselves a little* of what animal activists have long alleged at the highest level of thoroughbred racing. The focus is on trainer Steve Asmussen, a controversial conditioner, and his top assistant trainer, Scott Blasi.** The images are of the treatment of world-class horses training at two of the most revered and distinguished tracks in America—Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York. 

The fact that the story comes from Drape, and the fact that the Times hitches its wagon to PETA, gives the sport's legions of apologists room to dodge, deflect, or blame the messenger, in this case a paper that has aggressively covered the sport and activists whom racing insiders love to hate. But it is a mistake to conflate hostility toward PETA with the dismissal of its work. Virtually no one beyond racing cares how PETA got the video for the same reason that virtually no one cares how activists get other undercover video of alleged animal abuse; people care only about what is in the video. Here is the link to the PETA video linked to the piece in The Times.

The story and the video also are significant—and something different—because they blend together the rampant use of drugs on horses with claims of animal cruelty in a way that has been understated even among reform-minded racing insiders. You can be cruel to a horse by hitting it or "buzzing" it with an illegal device. You can abuse a horse by forcing it to race lamely when it is lame. And you can abuse a horse by giving it too many drugs to get it to the races (or to make it race faster). So if racing officials won't stop this practice for the sake of bettors or owners, how about stopping it for the sake of horses?

This is why even the simple headline of the Times' piece crystallizes the story in a way that resonates with the outside world. Cruelty. No one beyond the world of horse racing cares if industry insiders cheat each other. But plenty of people beyond the world of horse racing cares if the animals at the heart of the sport are treated cruelly. Horse racing simply cannot survive if the general public believes racehorses are abused or neglected. I have no idea if Asmussen and Blasi are guilty of anything and I accuse them here of nothing. My point is that it doesn't really matter. The whole industry is guilty of letting it get this far. 

The Backstretch

The sport's immediate reaction to the video, like the industry itself, was split essentially into three. There was the camp, suspicious of the origins of the story,  that downplayed it or worse. There was the camp that cited the story as vindicating proof of the need for reform. And there was the camp, petrified, that uttered a lot of empty platitudes about how concerned they are. But so many members of all of these groups are so complicit in what PETA and the Times allege that they cannot even proclaim today that they are "Shocked!"  to learn that racehorses are treated this way. The chorus here is part of the play.

It is true, of course, that most trainers, assistant trainers, jockeys, drivers, caretakers, and veterinarians care a great deal about their horses and would never intentionally harm them. But so what? How many abused horses is too many? Saying that there are exceptions to the rule of decent horse care is no answer to PETA or to the Times. The real story here is not that Steve Asmussen may be an outlier. It is that so many in the sport know that he is not. The story is not that this news is a surprise but that it took so long to emerge. You can blame PETA—you can always blame PETA—but for what, exactly?

The alleged behavior goes on, decade after decade, because the industry is unwilling to police itself. Because state regulators are feckless and because there is no uniformity among racing jurisdictions. Because the people who develop performance-enhancing drugs are almost always one step ahead of the officials developing tests for those drugs. Because veterinarians give their horses too many drugs too often. And because too many still within the sport equate real reform with a bad-for-marketing acknowledgement of how bad things are. Well, guess what. We are here. There is no longer a man behind a curtain.

Now the traditionalists—and by that I mean the well-meaning folks who have brought horse racing in America to the precipice of collapse—are mortified to know that this story will have legs (sorry) through the Triple Crown season. This is so because PETA didn't just drop the video on the world: Its officials also brought litigation, in both federal and state court, and that in turn has aroused from their perpetual torpor racing regulators in New York and Kentucky. The story of thoroughbred racing in 2014 will forever be linked the story from PETA and the Times. It's up to the industry to make something good from that.

The Finish Line

How about telling the truth? It can finally set this industry free. Instead of pretending this problem of abuse does not exist, or claiming that the problem is under control, the sport can take the bold leap it will need to take to get to the other side—the side where animal activists aren't picketing racetracks. That will mean more money for enhanced drug tests. It will mean legislative efforts to better regulate trainers and veterinarians. It will mean swifter and stricter punishment for offenders. It will mean an end to the insider's code of silence.

"If you see something, say something" ought to be horse racing's newest rule. Wouldn't that help? Everyone in horse racing, at least everyone I know or know of, already pretty much knows what's on the tape. Anyone who has ever spent time in a shed row or on a backstretch knows that this sort of stuff goes on, in some barns but not others, by some trainers and not others, in the shadows of the sport. That it was allegedly this trainer, at these tracks, was great marketing by PETA. But that doesn't mean the story isn't real or that it can easily be dismissed.

If the sport cannot find a way to rid itself of a culture that abides all of this it not only won't survive—it won't deserve to survive. Barry Weisbord, publisher of the Thoroughbred Daily News, was right in his rant over the weekend. The industry needs a fourth group, of earnest people at the core of the industry, who no longer are content to remain silent and watch their friends, neighbors, or competitors ruin it for the rest. In horse racing, as in life, there is no such thing as "almost honest" or "somewhat crooked" or "slightly abused."


* PETA claims it has seven hours of video, which were reviewed by Joe Drape of the Times, and which reportedly will be released before the Kentucky Derby in early May. Linked to Drape's piece is a nine-minute video from PETA which alleges certain conduct not shown on screen. "The video and the report show how multiple drugs are given daily to racehorses—whether they need them or not—by grooms and employees so they can pass veterinarians' visual inspections, make it to the racetrack or perform at a higher level," Drape wrote.

** Blasi, evidently, is no longer employed by Asmussen.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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