This weekend’s 140th running of the Kentucky Derby has brought attention to the latest scandal in horse racing. In March, PETA released a 10-minute video of an undercover investigation which accused trainer Steve Asmussen of horse cruelty. Joe Drape of The New York Times has been following the story, and he joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: Over the years, owners and trainers and even jockeys have often faced charges of cruelty to horses. Are the recent allegations against Steve Asmussen significantly different, or is he in the news strictly because of the images courtesy of PETA?
JD: You know, a picture tells a billion words. And [at] The New York Times, we spent a year, wrote a four-part series, talked about all these things that go on in modern horse racing, and, you know, we get some legislation moving. We get some things done reform-wise. But, you know, we moved the needle modestly. You get these images from PETA where you see kind of how ugly horse racing can be. It’s a very powerful visual, and I think that’s what people are reacting to.
BL: Trainer Steve Asmussen is being investigated by Kentucky and New York racing officials. But, he’s still on site at Churchill Downs. He’s got horses there. How have folks responded to his presence?
JD: It’s been very polarizing. You know, a lot of the people, including the head of the jockey club, said he probably should turn his horses over to somebody else and not show up. He has his defenders, too, who say, “Look, the investigations are not done.” What he is shown doing is nothing that is not legal in our sport, and, you know, to me, and I think that’s what I was trying to convey, if what we see and hear is not against the rules, then we need to change the rules.
And, you know, the point I raised, do you know any human athlete who’s getting paid millions a year who would subject himself to 26 drugs as a regimen, constant joint and muscle injections, a thing called shockwave therapy which is incredibly painful which basically deadens your feeling? And, you know, these are guys who can choose to do this, who get paid for doing this, and that’s one thing. Where’s the volition of a horse?
BL: Six of the 39 states that sanction horse racing have adopted rules that allow 26 different therapeutic medicines to keep a horse on the track. The rest of the states have not. Would a centralized body making the rules make a difference?
JD: There’s absolutely a need for a commissioner. You see what happened in the NBA this week with Donald Sterling. There’s no centralized body in horse racing. There’s nobody to instill law and order. If you break a law in one state, you can get a temporary restraining order — that happens all the time — and keep plying your trade in the next state. There’s no meaningful penalties.
BL: Joe, we’ve all heard that horse racing is in decline. You point out that in just the past seven years, wagering in North America has fallen from $15.5 billion to $11 billion. Are scandals like the one we’ve been discussing one part of the problem?
JD: Absolutely. I mean 30 million people will watch the Kentucky Derby all right. During the Triple Crown you will get the casual viewer: the women, the children, everybody goes to parties. And when they see and hear these stories about horses that are not being treated well it takes the fun, the grandeur, the spectacle out of it, and you’ve alienated 70 percent of your potential new customers. Let’s not try to frame it as anything but an economic issue. You know if a business was run like this on Wall Street there would be big changes.