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Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Wanting Asmussen in the Derby

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

When Tapiture goes to the gate in Saturday's Arkansas Derby, many people in the industry will be rooting against the 3-year-old. A winning performance, or even just a solid showing, will mean that his next stop will be Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. Tapiture, of course, is trained by racing's boogeyman, Steve Asmusssen.

Asmussen is at the center of a firestorm unlike anything the sport has ever seen. He is the subject of an undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which accused the trainer and his assistant Scott Blasi of subjecting their horses to cruel and injurious treatment. The New York Times jumped on the story and the result has been another massive blow to the sport's image.

To have an Asmussen-trained horse in the Kentucky Derby can only ignite what has already been a PR nightmare. In the only horse race that the average American pays attention to, a major storyline would be the horse trained by the guy who is under attack for alleged cruelty to animals. It's a nasty story and it would cause a lot of people to take a closer look at what really happens in this sport.

And that is exactly why I want Tapiture to be in the starting gate come Derby Day.

Racing's solution to every problem is to bury its head in the sand. The sport doesn't act. It's never proactive. It really never does much of anything when it comes to problem-solving and tough decisions. It just hopes these tough issues go away.

To have an Asmussen-trained horse in the Kentucky Derby can only ignite what has already been a PR nightmare.

The aftermath of the PETA-Asmussen story was all too typical. All we got out of the sport was a bunch of toothless statement from the many toothless alphabet organizations that proliferate in a leaderless industry. Real solutions? Forget about it.

Asmussen may or may not be suspended by the racing commissions in Kentucky and New York. He may or may not have to deal with the IRS or some other federal authority for possible infractions involving allegations that he falsified the names and social security numbers of some of his employees. No one knows what's going to happen to him.

But no matter how severe the penalties might be against him, the story will eventually run out of gas. It's easy to see him serving some sort of suspension, issuing a mea culpa and then moving on with his career. It's easy to see even racing's harshest critics losing interest in the story. It's easy to see PETA moving on and finding new targets, ones that don't involve this sport.

That's going to be a lot easier to accomplish if Tapiture isn't in the Kentucky Derby. My colleague Steve Davidowitz has written that Asmussen should stay away from the Derby and the Kentucky Oaks, which he has an excellent chance of winning with Untapable, for the "good of the game." If Asmussen won't bow out, he writes, Churchill Downs should ban him from the races.

The sport doesn't deserve to get off that easy. For the "good of the game" the Asmussen story needs to have a thousand legs. It needs to be picked up by not just the New York Times, but by dozens of influential media outlets, maybe even something as scary as 60 Minutes. It needs to become one of the focal points of the Kentucky Derby.

Most importantly, it needs to stay alive and force some self-reflection on the part of the sport. It needs to stay alive so that the industry can't run and hide but, instead, finally deal with a problem that is threatening to destroy the sport. That problem is that a culture exists in this game where far too many trainers and owners believe that the way to get to the winner's circle is best accomplished with a needle.

Most likely, no matter what happens with Tapiture, the Kentucky Derby and Asmussen, nothing will ever change. When does it ever? But if there's anything that can light a fire under this sport to right its ship and finally tackle the issues of drugs and how we treat the animal it's the specter of Steve Asmussen holding aloft the Kentucky Derby trophy.

Good luck in the Arkansas Derby, Tapiture.