Asmussen makes headlines again

May, 3, 2014

In recent weeks, there was a widespread school of thought in the Thoroughbred racing industry that the first weekend in May would be a much more wholesome period without the presence of trainer Steve Asmussen in the state of Kentucky.

Asmussen remains at the center of the controversial PETA undercover investigation in which the animal rights organization planted a worker in the trainer's barn for five months and came away with a nine-minute video that it alleges shows mistreatment of horses by Asmussen and his top assistant at the time, Scott Blasi.

Considering how racing has become a pinata for its numerous critics, it was not surprising to hear one of the industry's most respected leaders, Jockey Club chairman Ogden Mills Phipps, express a hope that Asmussen would raise a white flag and excuse himself from the festivities on Derby Weekend. Asmussen, you see, trains Untapable, the favorite to win Friday's Kentucky Oaks, and Tapiture, a Kentucky Derby candidate whose stock has fallen of late, and the prospect of Asmussen celebrating in the winner's circle after either race was revolting in some quarters.

Yet to ban Asmussen in advance of a thorough inquest simply because of public perception and a desire to make the problem go away made little sense because it would not solve anything. If anything, pushing him off stage would make it look as if racing was trying to hide a bigger problem instead of dealing with the issues inside one barn. It wouldn't make the tape disappear from the Internet or serve as an official ruling on the validity or lack thereof of the PETA charge. Whether Asmussen was in Kentucky or in North Korea with Dennis Rodman, questions would still be asked about the PETA tape by the horde of media covering the races this weekend.

To ban Asmussen in advance of a thorough inquest simply because of public perception and a desire to make the problem go away made little sense because it would not solve anything.

Only Asmussen would not be there to, depending on advice from legal counsel, answer them, deflect them, talk around them or ignore them, which is what should happen in this case -- as unsatisfying or awkward as that might seem to some. People should be found guilty or innocent based on the facts, not because PETA or anyone else has a strong opinion in the matter.

It's basically the way anyone would want to be treated.

So when Ron Winchell, the owner of Untapable and Tapiture, stuck with Asmussen and kept his horses with the 48-year-old trainer, fate was left to its own devices -- and you can pretty much guess what happened Friday at Churchill Downs.

Yes, Untapable won the Kentucky Oaks. Easily. In front of 113,071 people at Churchill Downs -- the third-largest Oaks crowd in the 140-year history of the race -- who turned out despite Asmussen's presence at the track. Imagine that.

And so racing had the very scenario so many loathed. Asmussen stood in the winner's circle -- and, believe it or not, questions were asked and racing survived to live another day, which will be Saturday when Asmussen will try to win the Kentucky Derby with Tapiture. Imagine a sequel to Friday's scene.

Before even pondering that wild possibility, though, let's turn the focus back to Friday and the lessons that can be gleaned from what happened in the drama surrounding the distaff version of the Kentucky Derby.

Whatever anyone feels about Asmussen or foul-mouthed assistant Blasi, whom Asmussen fired after the tape's release, the situation was at least presented in a more balanced manner Friday than it was when it was first released.

Bob Costas, in an NBCSN interview during the telecast of the race, asked Asmussen about the tape and was what was depicted on it. Asmussen said it did not show him violating any rules.

Considering that the tape has been viewed approximately 213,600 times on YouTube and that probably 2 or 3 percent of those folks actually understand racing's medication laws, it was a comment people needed to hear -- whether it was right or wrong.

In time, Asmussen might be able to discredit the tape or we might find he's guilty and has been misleading everyone. At some point, a racing board might find Asmussen guilty of violations and suspend him.

But until that happens, rather than convict him for the sake of convenience or public relations, it was proper to let him train his horses and speak out against his critics.

At last look, this is America, right?

In time, it will be interesting to see what happens with Asmussen. He was properly removed from this year's Hall of Fame ballot because the vote was scheduled to end long before the matter was adjudicated. If he's guilty of mistreating horses, there's no place for him in the Hall of Fame.

Whether he should be suspended right now from his livelihood is a different matter. That's for unbiased experts to decide after they study the evidence and decide on the scope of any violation.

Until then, racing will have to deal with having Asmussen around.

More than that, he'll be center stage with the undisputed leader of the 3-year-old filly division who might be good enough to tackle the boys in the Preakness.

Some might forget with all the controversy swirling around him that Asmussen pulled off the Kentucky Oaks-Preakness double in 2009 with Rachel Alexandra.

Untapable might not be that good. Time will tell, and, as we find out, it looks as if some folks in the sport will have to grin and bear it because Asmussen will be there. Others will be much more outspoken about how it pains them to have him around.

Just imagine that pain if Tapiture happens to win the Derby. The Run for the Roses just might become the run for the bottle of aspirin.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.



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