When it comes to scandal the timing is never good, but with the Steve Asmussen-PETA story that broke Thursday in the New York Times, the timing is a nightmare for horse racing's Hall of Fame.
An investigation by PETA that cast Asmussen and his assistant, Scott Blasi, in a very unfavorable light hit just 13 days after it was announced that Asmussen was placed on the ballot for the Hall of Fame's Class of 2014. The story and, in particular, an undercover video by PETA raise all sorts of questions about Asmussen, Blasi and their operation. A lot of sorting out will be done before we've heard the last of this story, but at the very least, it's impossible not to conclude that Asmussen has a contemptible disregard for the well-being of his horses.
That's not someone I want in the Hall of Fame, and I am pretty sure that's not someone the Hall of Fame wants to celebrate as one of its newest members come induction time in August.
That's not someone I want in the Hall of Fame, and I am pretty sure that's not someone the Hall of Fame wants to celebrate as one of its newest members come induction time in August. Inducting Asmussen would be an embarrassment for the sport, which has already been embarrassed enough, and for the Hall of Fame.
For what it's worth, Asmussen's chances of getting in became a bit smaller Friday morning. I had some reservations about voting for him as it was because he has had a number of medication violations, but I did so anyway. His on-track accomplishments are without question Hall of Fame-worthy. My ballot was sent via snail mail about 12 hours before I read the story. That story cost Steve Asmussen my Hall of Fame vote.
I informed the Hall of Fame of my situation and that I no longer wanted to vote for Asmussen. They told me they understood and allowed me to rescind my vote. My original ballot had "yes" votes for Asmussen and the Asmussen-trained Curlin and no one else. I have now voted for Ashado, and no one else, also rescinding my Curlin vote.
It may seem unfair to penalize Curlin, and I may vote for him in subsequent years. But with so much unknown about Asmussen and what he may or may not have done to win races with the horses in his barn, the dust needs to settle before anything that has anything to do with Asmussen should get into the Hall of Fame.
Whether Asmussen gets in the Hall of Fame bears watching. How many people already sent in their votes for him? Are there some who are willing to look past this scandal and focus solely on his accomplishments? He needs to be among just the top four vote-getters. Don't be the least bit surprised if he gets in.
Ironically, what could really destroy the careers of Asmussen and Blasi is not what they may have done to their horses but the way they handled their workers. PETA alleges that Asmussen was paying his employees $5.95 an hour, below minimum wage, and forcing many who are allegedly illegal aliens to work under false identities. That sounds like something the heavyweights at the IRS and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services might be very interested in.
When it comes to the treatment of the horses and what Asmussen and Blasi were reportedly doing, it may well be that most, if not everything, they were doing is legal. But that's a big part of this story.
While not everyone in the sport is a bad apple, a culture exists where far too many feel that the way to the winner's circle is not through good horsemanship but through good pharmaceuticals. This isn't the first time someone has documented the litany of drugs that trainers can and will use to get their horses to perform, drugs that can take infirm horses and make them able to get around the racetrack no matter how sore or broken-down they may be.
That's what is most troubling about the Asmussen exposé. It portrays an operation that does not care one bit about the welfare of the horses and will do whatever it takes to win. Sadly, the system allows this cavalier attitude to exist by being so permissive with the vast amounts of drugs that can be given legally to a horse.
If the PETA exposé turns out to be an accurate portrayal of Asmussen and Blasi, then there shouldn't be any place for people like this in the sport. In the meantime, voters can take a stand and at least see to it that Asmussen doesn't make the Hall of Fame.