Report: PETA Probe Alleges Cruelty to Horses

The animal rights group planted an investigator at prominent stable last year.

A major Thoroughbred racing stable was the subject of a 2013 undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which alleges over-medication of and cruelty to horses, as well as use of electrical devices on them.

The New York Times published an article on the PETA probe in its March 20 edition and posted on its website late March 19. The Times in the story said it reviewed all documents, about seven hours of video, and related complaints, but had no part in the investigation.

The newspaper said it wrote the story on the condition it not publish the name of the investigator, who is said to have worked for trainer Steve Asmussen and his assistant, Scott Blasi, for four months at Churchill Downs and Saratoga Race Course.

The PETA investigator also alleged Asmussen employed undocumented workers and encouraged use of false documents, according to the Times.

The Times March 19 contacted Clark Brewster, who is representing Asmussen and Blasi in the case.

"It is certainly a surprise to Mr. Asmussen and Mr. Blasi that anyone would deceptively get a job and keep surveillance and their notes on their conduct for the agenda of others," Brewster told the Times. "They will reserve comment with regard to any accusations until they have had the opportunity to fully review them. Then they will respond factually."

Thoroughbred owner Ahmed Zayat, who has a number of horses in the Asmussen barn, responded to the story on Twitter by saying he is surprised at the report but "I am waiting on facts. Every story has two sides. I will do my homework."

Zayat owned Nehro, one of the horses mentioned in the Times story. The colt, known to have hoof issues, is said to have died from colic on the way to an equine hospital the day of last year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) at Churchill.

Asmussen is on this year's ballot for induction in the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame.

PETA didn't issue a statement on the investigation but offered an outline of the probe on its website. It appears all of the medications mentioned are therapeutic and permitted to be used within certain guidelines; PETA alleges the drugs were used for non-therapeutic purposes.

The group also heavily focused on use of furosemide, the anti-bleeding medication known as Salix or Lasix. It claims it should be banned because it is "performance-enhancing."

PETA is seeking support for passage of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2013, which would give the federal government oversight of horse racing and move equine medication use under the auspices of the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Though major industry organizations oppose the bill as written, there are prominent owners working behind the scenes to push Congress to act on it.

Late in the afternoon of March 20, three industry organizationsNational Thoroughbred Racing Association, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, and Racing Medication and Testing Consortiumissued a joint statement on the developments.

"The allegations and incidents described in today's report by the New York Times are very disturbing," the statement said. "While we have not been given the opportunity to review most of the documents referred to in the story, we will not defend or condone any proven cases of abuse or neglect. The attitudes and actions alleged in the story are not representative of the overwhelming majority of participants in our sport who care deeply for the horses they own or train and conduct their business affairs in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.

"We urge the industry to aggressively pursue the nationwide adoption of uniform therapeutic medication rules, penalties, and testing reforms. These reforms are already being adopted by the majority of major racing jurisdictions, and we urge all other states to move quickly to adopt them as well. Once implemented nationwide, these reforms will help to ensure a higher degree of health and safety for horses and riders and integrity for the sport."

The Jockey Club also issued a statement.

"The Jockey Club is aware of a recent media report involving disturbing allegations of animal cruelty and related matters," the statement said. "The Jockey Club fully supports and assists law enforcement agencies, the courts, and racing regulatory authorities in the investigation of matters involving animal cruelty. Furthermore, pursuant to the Principal Rules and Requirements of The American Stud Book, The Jockey Club may deny any or all of the privileges of The American Stud Book to any person or entity when, among other things, there is a final determination by an official body that such person has committed an act of cruelty to a horse or violated applicable statutes or regulations regarding the care and treatment of a horse.

"The Jockey Club has long held that for the health and safety of the athletes and the integrity of the sport, Thoroughbreds should only race when free from the influence of medications in their system. The Jockey Club remains committed to the comprehensive national reform of medication rules, laboratory standards, and penalties currently under way in 19 racing jurisdictions that enhance transparency and severely prosecute those who operate outside the rules.

"The Jockey Club will continue to aggressively pursue these reforms until they are uniformly adopted for all North American racing."

Breeders' Cup Limited issued an additional response to the situation: 

"While the individuals involved are entitled to due process after a fair and impartial investigation, much of the alleged behavior depicted in today's news accounts is unacceptable, deeply troubling and, we believe, not a reflection of the way we strive as an industry to properly care for our horses," the statement said. "The vast majority of participants in Thoroughbred racing work hard to care for the animals entrusted to them in an ethical and responsible manner and to comply with veterinary best practices and regulatory standards.

"We believe that it is imperative that Thoroughbred racing in the United States aggressively pursue adoption of the uniform medication rules that contain important reforms relating to the administration of therapeutic medications and that the multiple violation penalties associated with these model rules should be implemented as quickly as possible. Moreover, the administration of medication to horses should be done in the context of an established veterinarian/patient relationship subject to guidelines requiring individual diagnosis and treatment plans. Finally, we strongly believe that workers in our industry should be treated fairly and with respect and that employers in our industry should comply with applicable laws governing the workplace.

"At its annual World Championships, Breeders' Cup has worked to set best-in-class standards for safety, security, race-readiness, and testing. Breeders' Cup will continue to support medication and other reform efforts to ensure that a culture of respect and care for the animals is the norm and that those who do not comport with regulatory and ethical standards do not find comfort or shelter in our business. They put at risk the good work and reputations of many other industry participants."

Churchill Downs also issued a statement, saying, "The health, welfare and the safety of our equine and human athletes is paramount at Churchill Downs' racetracks. This has always been a topic of great importance to us, and we've made long-term and far-reaching commitments to incorporate health and wellness measures for every race, every day.

"The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and New York Gaming Commission have indicated that they intend to investigate the matter and we await their findings."

The Times story is available here.