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Steve Asmussen may or may not be a truly great trainer. The way we measure that varies for each horseman. But there is no disputing that Asmussen is one of the most successful trainers in racing history.
He has more than 6,750 career victories, more than $220 million in career earnings, and has trained two Horse of the Year winners -- Rachel Alexandra and Curlin -- the latter of which won that prestigious award twice.
Asmussen is a Breeders' Cup winner, and both Rachel Alexandra and Curlin won the Preakness Stakes. He also has been the leading trainer at numerous race meets throughout the Midwest and South.
A few weeks ago, Asmussen seemed to be an odds-on favorite to be voted into horse racing's hallowed Hall of Fame.
He also was looking forward to running Tapiture -- a very good 3-year-old -- in the April 12 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, a prelude to that colt's likely start for owner Ron Winchell in the May 3 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
Then came the 9½-minute video that an undercover investigator for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released to the general public, in addition to the hours of video the New York Times reviewed as part of a journalistic collaboration that has turned the racing world upside down and inside out.
Due to the remarks on that video made by Scott Blasi -- Asmussen's assistant for 15 years -- and specific, extremely insensitive references made about a stakes-winning horse with sore feet, who probably should not have been preparing for a race, the video gave rise to official allegations of animal abuse levied at Asmussen's stable.
As unethical as the undercover investigation might have been, the allegations made Asmussen look as bad as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did when his right hand men and women overtly punished a northern New Jersey town with dumb-minded lane closings on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. This allegedly for failing to push a political policy endorsed by the Governor.
Asmussen fired Blasi even quicker than Governor Christie fired a key employee as both men attempted to separate themselves from their respective brewing scandals. Clearly, Asmussen was not there when the damning video was shot by the undercover employee. Clearly Asmussen had grounds to fire Blaisi while attempting to cut his losses. But anyone who believes that Blasi's behavior was somehow a totally isolated incident, probably believes that Governor Christie never really knew what his people were doing in his name.
I can not believe either man. I cannot believe Asmussen's assistant trainer ran the Asmussen barn without his boss' knowledge any more than I believe Christie's employees acted without their boss being aware of what they were doing. But even if they did not, a tone had been set in both instances. The people acting on behalf of their respective bosses could not do things so far against their employer's will without betraying the loyalty they had built over many years.
Blasi was completely familiar with Asmussen's approach to training. He even won 196 races for the stable when Asmussen was forced to serve a six month suspension in 2006 for a series of minor violations and drug infractions in Texas and other states. As such, Asmussen is not a man without serious blemishes on his record. That he overcame all of that to be on the ballot for the Hall of Fame is to his credit, or perhaps the Hall should reconsider its standards. Fact is, to save embarrassment, the Hall did remove Asmussen's name from the ballot within hours after this scandal became public.
That stated, a major storm still is brewing around the Asmussen barn.
Asmussen is under investigation by racing's ruling bodies in New York and Kentucky, with possible criminal indictments in the wind. Given that PETA always is looking to embarrass horse racing, always looking for ways to bring down the sport, there is no doubt they will seek to put an extremely negative focus on Asmussen when he arrives at Churchill Downs to prepare the 3 year old filly Untapable for the Kentucky Oaks and the 3 year old colt Tapiture for the Kentucky Derby.
Like it or not, fair or not, this is something the sport can least afford to occur, and Asmussen has to know that. So does his principal owner Ron Winchell.
When hordes of media descend on Churchill Downs for the week leading up to the 140th running of the Oaks May 2 and the Derby, May 3, the focus will not be on the primary contenders from the east, north and west. It will not be on California Chrome, or Constitution, or the horses that make it into the race after they show their abilities in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, or Santa Anita Derby on Saturday, April 5. They will be all over Steve Asmussen.
As they should.
Right or wrong, pre judged or prematurely convicted of the allegations he is facing, the general public has lost a lot of confidence in Thoroughbred horseracing in recent years. There are too many drugs, legal and illegal in the game and everybody inside racing knows that to be true, just as the general public senses it.
Where Steve Asmussen deserves the constitutional protection in any court of law to be considered innocent until and unless proven guilty, the enormous negative consequences to the sport are looming with his mere presence at Churchill Downs.
Winchell may have declared his support for his trainer, based partly on the fact that "it is too late to make a change so close to the Derby," this is one of those occasions when the perception of the general public must be heeded while the larger legal inquiries proceed in other forums.
Steve Asmussen would do himself and the sport and the Kentucky Derby a lot of good if he recognized that he is putting his beloved sport in a major predicament that will not even be overcome by a victory.
On April 2, I circulated a questionnaire to three groups of more than 400 horsemen, state racing regulators, racing executives and horseplayers throughout America, asking "if any felt that Asmussen should be given support for running his horse in the Derby", or "if he should voluntarily turn his horses over to another trainer," " to give his owner Winchell a fair shot at winning the Oaks and the world's most famous race.
Only three people said they believed he should stay in the Derby picture.
Many dozens more who responded, sympathized with Asmussen's plight and would not want to be in his spot, but advocated he withdraw, or that Churchill Downs do it for him.
Frankly, that is exactly where I come down on this. Steve Asmussen would do himself and the sport and the Kentucky Derby a lot of good if he recognized that he is putting his beloved sport in a major predicament that will not even be overcome by a victory.
A Derby victory by an Asmussen trained horse in this Kentucky Derby hardly would be a balancing weight against the allegations and the maelstrom of negative publicity that will dominate Derby week coverage in newsprint, in the social networks and on the NBC national television broadcast. A win could put even more negative spin on the situation than already has unfolded.
As a fan of the game, as someone who wants to see no horse mistreated and the sport itself realize that it needs to embrace fewer drugs and many badly needed reforms from coast to coast, as someone who wants to see Asmussen fairly treated by the various racing commissions and legal forums he will be facing, I suggest to him to back away this time.
Steve Asmussen should not run a horse in this Kentucky Derby, or Kentucky Oaks.
He should do that for the good of the game, and if that is something he cannot see for himself, then Churchill Downs should do it for him.