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State agency probes reports of thoroughbred abuse

Top trainer accused of misconduct at Saratoga Race Course, elsewhere

Friday, March 21, 2014
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The Oklahoma Training Track at Saratoga Race Course is pictured on Thursday.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
The Oklahoma Training Track at Saratoga Race Course is pictured on Thursday.

Horse Racing Exposed: Drugs and Death

This video, produced by PETA, contains strong language and adult content.

— The New York State Gaming Commission is investigating allegations of abuse and mistreatment of racehorses by Steve Asmussen, one of the nation’s top trainers.

The investigation announced Thursday involves alleged conduct by Asmussen and his team during last year’s Saratoga Race Course thoroughbred meet, filmed secretly by an employee actually working for the activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Asmussen, 48, has 6,700 career victories, second-most all-time, and won the Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer in 2008 and 2009. His stable has included such top horses as Preakness winner and 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, Curlin and Storm Treasure. He is under consideration for inclusion in the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs.

The Gaming Commission said the investigation was initiated after it was provided undercover evidence by PETA. The allegations include cruel treatment of thoroughbreds and administration of drugs to horses for nonmedical reasons.

Those identified by PETA include Asmussen; assistant trainer Scott Blasi; KDE Equine, which does business as Steve Asmussen Racing Stables; attending veterinarians Dr. Joseph F. Migliacci and Dr. James Hunt; and jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr., who was accused of using an electric shock device.

“The allegations and footage provided by PETA are extremely troubling and we are fully investigating the matter,” said Robert Williams, acting executive director of the state Gaming Commission, which is based in Albany. “PETA has offered to assist the commission in its investigation, and we welcome such cooperation. We expect that all other parties involved will be forthcoming as well.”

Those under investigation could lose their licenses to race in New York state temporarily or permanently.

“If the results of our investigation find that licensed individuals violated the state’s laws and rules, the commission will consider all options,” Williams said.

Efforts to reach Asmussen, who is based in Arlington, Texas, were unsuccessful Thursday, but his lawyer issued a statement to the New York Times.

“It is certainly a surprise to Mr. Asmussen and Mr. Blasi that anyone would deceptively get a job and keep surveillance and their notes on their conduct for the agenda of others,” Clark Brewer, a lawyer for the two men, told the Times. “They will reserve comment with regard to any accusations until they have had the opportunity to fully review them. Then they will respond factually.”

There was no answer Thursday afternoon at a phone listing for Hunt in Elmont. Migliacci did not respond to a message left at his office in Florida.

Santana’s agent told the Times that Santana, who is 21, has not used an electric device.

PETA said it filmed footage at both Churchill Downs in Kentucky and at Saratoga Race Course, and filed complaints this week with both New York and Kentucky racing regulators.

The Lexington Herald-Leader reported late Thursday that Kentucky racing officials will also launch an investigation.

A nine-minute video is posted on PETA’s website. Blasi appears throughout the footage, making numerous profane comments about the animals he trains and techniques used.

PETA has long contended that horse racing is a form of animal cruelty and noted the number of on-track deaths that occur each year.

The group says 24 horses a week die at United States tracks; there were several on-track deaths last year at Saratoga Race Course.

The New York Racing Association last year had a safety committee review the number of deaths at New York state tracks, including Saratoga, and issue recommendations.

In a statement released Thursday, NYRA CEO and President Chris Kay stated, “The New York Racing Association is concerned by the allegations that have been brought to The New York State Gaming Commission. We support the Gaming Commission and will fully cooperate with its investigation.”

PETA said that Nehro, a horse trained by Asmussen that finished second in the 2011 Kentucky Derby, was forced to race and/or train on “hole-ridden, chronically painful hooves that were held together with superglue and filler.” Nehro was euthanized due to colic at Churchill Downs on the day of the 2013 Kentucky Derby.

“We witnessed a horse in such pain that it hurt him even to stand, thyroid and other drugs were dumped into horses’ daily feed, and horses had been blistered with chemical paint in order to stimulate healing and keep them racing,” said PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk. “Anyone who thinks racing is ‘clean’ can now see that even at this top level, the syringe and pill bottle are the main training tools and most of the horses who make it out alive are reduced to broken wrecks.”

PETA provided the Gaming Commission with its video evidence Tuesday, saying the alleged conduct occurred at Saratoga Race Course during last year’s six-week meet, in July and August.

The Gaming Commission said it started an investigation immediately, and will review all footage. The Office of Veterinary Affairs, led by equine medical director Dr. Scott E. Palmer, also will be part of the probe.

“The behavior depicted in the undercover video and supporting materials is disturbing and disgusting,” Palmer said in a statement provided by the Gaming Commission. “We are working to determine what happened and ensure that proper protocols are put in place to prevent such actions from taking place again.”

 
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