No Smoking Gun in PETA Video Sent to KHRC

No Smoking Gun in PETA Video Sent to KHRC
Photo: Mallory Haigh
Steve Asmussen

Though People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has submitted a 10-page complaint and a 22-minute video to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission alleging animal abuse last year in trainer Steve Asmussen's Churchill Downs stable, no smoking gun is evident in a review of the evidence.

That is not to say investigators won't find rule violations stemming from the video and complaint that centers on the treatment of 2011 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) runner-up Nehro, but the video does not appear to offer any obvious violations. While no illegal injections—in fact no injections—of Nehro are documented in the video or complaint, the animal rights group argues that because of his ailing feet, Zayat Stables' Nehro never should have been sent out for a pair of workouts in April 2013 at Churchill.

In fact, PETA argues that in his condition, keeping Nehro at Churchill amounted to animal cruelty. The video documents assistant trainer Scott Blasi, stable staff, veterinarians, and farriers working on Nehro. The son of Mineshaft   did not race during or after the time period in which the video was recorded, and he died after an early morning bout with colic May 14, 2013.

On March 18 PETA submitted the 10-page complaint to the KHRC requesting an investigation of Asmussen, Blasi, and other licensed workers at Asmussen's Churchill stable. The complaint included a link to a 22-minute, 18-second video PETA claims supports its allegations.

The Blood-Horse acquired the submitted letter and video sent to the KHRC through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The complaint follows from the animal rights group's posting of video collected from a PETA investigator who spent time in the Asmussen stable in 2013 in Kentucky and New York. The highly edited video on the PETA site, complete with ominous music and the title "Horse Racing Exposed: Drugs and Death," claims to document abuses that occurred at the Asmussen barn.

The video posted publicly on the PETA site also raises concerns about the use of electrical devices by jockeys and the liberal use of thyroid medication on horses in the stable. Those issues, which apparently were raised in New York, are not included in the video sent to Kentucky regulators.

The video sent to the Kentucky racing commission is broken into segments that correspond with the 10-page complaint. Investigators from the KHRC currently are looking into incidents listed in the complaint.

In what PETA may believe is a smoking gun, the first segment allegedly shows an Asmussen foreman administering dantrolene to a horse at Churchill. But an expert on Kentucky racing rules who requested anonymity said such treatments by non-veterinarians of some prescribed therapeutic medications, including dantrolene, are allowed if they're prescribed by a veterinarian.

PETA supplied no documentation that the administered dantrolene, a therapeutic medication used to reduce muscle cramping, wasn't prescribed by a vet. In its complaint, PETA cites a rule that injections need to be carried out by veterinarians, but the dose in the video appears to be an oral administration.

In the complaint sent to the KHRC, PETA makes the general allegation that Asmussen's stable maintained horses in poor condition. Much of that complaint focuses on Nehrowho in the video clearly is suffering from foot issuesand a juvenile filly named Teardrop. The complaint said the stable mistreated Nehro by sending him out for two workouts at Churchill.

"Asmussen and Blasi subjected Nehro to cruel or injurious mistreatment by forcing him to continue training—making him run timed workouts on April 23 and 30—even after PETA's investigator had heard Blasi acknowledge Nehro's poor physical condition," the complaint reads.

Much of the video and complaint documents Blasi, farriers, and veterinarians attempting to understand and treat Nehro's foot issues. Dr. Holly Cheever, who frequently assists PETA efforts and did not directly work with Nehro, reviewed the footage for the organization and said Nehro had serious foot problems, and that working on the track would have been "excruciatingly painful."

Cheever later speculated that the pain and stress of Nehro's lameness could have been a contributing factor to his colic.

Experts at the KHRC will have to determine if violations occurred in any of those sequences or in the two workouts that occurred. Nehro did not run especially fast in either workout; he completed four furlongs in :52 2/5 April 23 and five furlongs in 1:02 3/5 April 30. In video apparently taken a day after one of the workouts, Blasi notes that Nehro looked pretty good in the workout and "he needs to train."

In another video segment, Blasi said owner Ahmed Zayat was right not to retire the horse after the Derby because he did come back to run some top races, including a runner-up finish in the 2012 Pimlico Special Stakes (gr. III).

In one segment of the secretly taken video, Asmussen talks about Nehro's death; he says the stable had not had a horse die of colic in nine years, and that he'd never seen a horse succumb so quickly.

PETA also documented the stable's treatment of Winchell Thoroughbreds' homebred Teardrop, who allegedly battled lameness issues two days before she was entered in the Debutante Stakes (gr. III) June 22 at Churchill. She finished seventh.

Blasi uses profanity to express his frustration when the filly apparently shows lameness on his watch with Asmussen away from the stable. Blasi later says he believes the filly is suffering from a deep bruise in a foot.

Blasi uses profanity throughout the video segments. In the original, edited video posted to the PETA site, the outbursts seem to document a person who is callous or even dislikes horses. While Blasi's comments in the video sent to the KHRC also can come off as callous, in context some may view them as a horseman frustrated by various physical setbacks suffered by the stable's horses.

In watching the video sent to the KHRC, it's clear that the original video PETA posted on its website is heavily edited. The PETA website video routinely moves around audio segments to run with unrelated video.

For instance, in the edited video on the PETA site during what appears to be a routine endoscopic exam, Blasi can be heard profanely cursing horses. The unedited segments sent to the KHRC make it clear Blasi's tirade has nothing to do with the endoscopic procedure. The rant actually was recorded at a time when Blasi had found out Teardrop had come up lame.

The unedited video is available to the KHRC through an online link to the PETA website. The unedited video is framed by a gray border that includes the words, "never release."

The PETA complaint also alleges Asmussen did not provide enough time off for horses who bled (exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage) after races or workouts. The animal rights group says the stable raced those horses without adequate down time. The video includes footage of those veterinary notes.

Based on the listed levels of EIPH in the vet notes documented on the video, none of the horses suffered EIPH at levels that would be visible to the eye. Of the documented levels of EIPH, most appear to be grade I or II, which are considered the most minor on the grading scale and only are visible through an endoscopic exam.

The expert on Kentucky racing rules said track vets who observe low levels of EIPH through endoscopic exams are not required to report those findings, though sometimes they are reported. The KHRC requires horses go on the veterinarian's list if they show "external" evidence of EIPH during or after a race or workout.

Horses on the KHRC vet's list are ineligible to enter a race due to illness, injury, unsoundness, or other medical condition. Horses on the vet's list only can be released through authorization of the KHRC state veterinarian.

Horse racing author and attorney Milt Toby said the recording of the vet records brings up some interesting legal questions, but ultimately he thinks PETA acted within Kentucky law on the issue. Kentucky law does address confidentiality of vet records, but it appears to be the responsibility of the vet to keep those records private unless the owner gives permission, the records are needed for a legal proceeding, or, in the case of horse racing, the KHRC requests the records.

After release of the original PETA video, Zayat removed his horses from Asmussen's stable. Winchell Thoroughbreds kept their horses with Asmussen, who saddled Winchell homebred Untapable to victory in the Longines Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) May 2 at Churchill.

A link to the full complaint is available below. Please be advised that the complaint contains profanity throughout the document and the link to the video has been disabled because of privacy concerns in footage involving vet records.

The complaint filed by PETA with the KHRC.

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