Print and Go Back ESPN.com: HorseRacing [Print without images]

Saturday, May 24, 2014
Shifting horse racing's focus

By Steve Davidowitz
Special to ESPN.com

Just as the 2014 Triple Crown chase was ready to begin, most of the racing world was expecting a monsoon of bad publicity to dominate the news coming out of Churchill Downs.

Trainer Steve Asmussen and his assistant Scott Blasi had been accused of mistreatment of horses in their care. Nothing more damning could possibly have been said about anyone in the sport.

Asmussen was no low-profile trainer operating in a world of small purses, and Blasi was his most trusted assistant for nearly 16 years. Through April 2014, Asmussen, with Blasi's help, had won more than 6,000 races, including a pair of victories in the Preakness Stakes. He also had trained two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, as well as the filly Rachel Alexandra, who beat out the great Zenyatta for Horse of the Year in 2009.

The accusations hardly came out of the blue or from a disreputable source.

All this led most observers in and out of racing to wonder how the sport could go through its annual Triple Crown season without facing challenges to its very existence in a world that is properly sensitive to animal abuse.

As many probably remember, the racing world erupted into a frenzy when evidence of possible animal abuse in the Asmussen barn became public through a 9½-minute video that included indefensible statements Blasi made about why and how injured or ill horses were being given drugs to keep them in competition. The video was surreptitiously secured by an undercover stablehand planted to work in the Asmussen barn by PETA, a well-financed volunteer group established for the protection and treatment of animals in America.

Simultaneously, The New York Times published a similar story detailing the alleged abuses while suggesting there was more to be seen in seven hours of PETA's surreptitiously obtained video.

All this led most observers in and out of racing to wonder how the sport could go through its annual Triple Crown season without facing challenges to its very existence in a world that is properly sensitive to animal abuse. To protect himself, Asmussen immediately fired Blasi while racing's Hall of Fame at Saratoga chose to remove Asmussen from its 2014 ballot, citing concerns over the allegations.

I, for one, thought Asmussen's presence at the Derby would be such a distraction that he could do the game a great favor if he asked owner Ron Winchell to use someone else to train the Derby colt Tapiture and the Oaks filly Untapable. That did not happen, however.

Still, it was a surprise to see so few articles and news feeds coming out of Churchill focusing on Asmussen's difficulties. Aside from a tense one-on-one interview with Bob Costas of NBC -- in which Asmussen denied wrongdoing -- the trainer was permitted to go about his business.

His star 3-year-old filly won the $1 million Kentucky Oaks on Friday, May 2, while Tapiture failed to contend in the Derby. Yet almost no one mentioned the brewing scandal. Clearly, the extreme popularity of the Derby overshadowed the controversy while the nation squarely shifted its focus to America's most famous race.

At that precise moment, a feel-good story surfaced -- a story anchored by 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman and his California-bred horse, California Chrome.

Sherman, a well-respected New York-born horseman with strong California roots, came to Louisville with nearly 60 years in the game. Back in 1955, Sherman was the exercise rider for Swaps when that great horse upset the equally great Nashua in that year's Kentucky Derby.

During this year's Derby week, Sherman was a media darling, as were California Chrome's easygoing, small-time owners, Martin Perry and Steve Coburn. They not only had the probable Derby favorite -- they were affable, friendly, accessible to the press, and their horse looked like he was worth more than the $6 million that had been offered to buy 51 percent of him when 'CC' won the Santa Anita Derby on April 5.

Moments after California Chrome scored a convincing victory in the Kentucky Derby, many observers quickly stated he would go on to win the Preakness at Pimlico to set up a serious bid to win the Belmont Stakes. If he could win the first two races, most believed he could become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to sweep the elusive Triple Crown.

So, California Chrome did win the Preakness in a performance that revealed more of the colt's burgeoning talent. He handled a relatively fast pace, handled the premature -- but spirited -- bid thrown at him by Social Inclusion coming out of the final turn, and he put the finishing touches on a solid performance by keeping Ride On Curlin at bay through the length of the stretch.

So now his bid to become the 12th horse to sweep the Triple Crown has taken on a life of its own. While 12 previous horses since Affirmed have come to Belmont Park having won the Derby and Preakness only to fail in the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes, California Chrome has all the credentials to finally end the drought.

He might not.

Some excellent horses have failed when they seemed poised to do it. Even Spectacular Bid, considered among the top half-dozen horses in racing history, failed to complete the sweep. Real Quiet, four lengths in front with about a furlong to go, also failed. That is why if California Chrome does get to the Belmont winner's circle on June 7, we can expect to see a huge celebration throughout the country and in the press, where this colt will be praised as few horses in several decades have been praised.

Although this would be a terrific climax to a great story, it also might do something else that could have unfortunate consequences.

As I see it, 1000 horse deaths is too high a price to pay for a feel-good story, no matter how deserving California Chrome and his connections are of achieving racing immortality.

Already, California Chrome's popular exploits have reduced the pressure on racing's leaders in every jurisdiction to deal with the myriad problems that the PETA tape exposed.

Like it or not, the tape graphically underscored the negative impact of a prevailing culture of legal and illegal drugs that trainers and veterinarians are suspected of using every day to keep horses in competition when they should be resting.

This point was reaffirmed just a few days ago during a 15-minute documentary on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel." While the report exaggerated some of the reasons certain drugs are used on the track, it did point out "that more than 1000 horses die at racetracks from coast to coast every year." Buttressed by testimony from licensed vets, the HBO report concluded that "many of these deaths can be traced to the use of legal and illegal drugs."

Given the PETA and HBO exposé, it is sincerely hoped that California Chrome's exciting Triple Crown run should not serve to mask the sport's need to eradicate promiscuous drug use. As I see it, 1000 horse deaths is too high a price to pay for a feel-good story, no matter how deserving California Chrome and his connections are of achieving racing immortality.

By all means, let's see if 'CC' can pull off the feat to end the 36-year Triple Crown drought. And should he pull it off, let us all raise a glass of bubbly to him for his accomplishment. But when the dust settles -- when the last glowing story about the horse and his trainer and owners are written -- everyone in the game, especially owners, trainers and working veterinarians must address the simple but tragic fact that too many horses are being kept in competition when rest -- not drugs -- would be a better alternative to restore good health to these wonderful creatures.

If the game ignores the evidence, there will be more indictments posed by investigative agencies such as PETA that want to bury the sport. Should true reforms not occur, California Chrome's successful run through the spring of 2014 will mean little when further abuses lead to fewer tracks, fewer fans and far less racing in America.