Industry Reactions to ‘Disturbing’ PETA Video: Three States Launch Investigations
Following are responses from industry organizations contacted by the Paulick Report for comment in the wake of allegations of animal cruelty and other charges by the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals against Eclipse Award-winning trainer Steve Asmussen and his chief assistant, Scott Blasi.
The allegations, originally detailed in the New York Times, followed a four-month undercover investigation by a PETA operative who gained employment in the Asmussen stable and compiled more than seven hours of secretly recorded videotapes and 285 pages of notes. Accusations of wrongdoing include animal cruelty, labor and immigration violations, plus charges that jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. carried an illegal electrical device in races.
PETA filed complaints with multiple federal and state agencies, including the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and New York State Gaming Commission. Statements from both organizations (see below) said they are conducting formal investigations as a result of the complaints. A third state regulator, the New Mexico Racing Commission, is voluntarily conducting an inquiry into the actions of Asmussen and Santana, because each is licensed in New Mexico.
Stan Bowker, steward for the Arkansas Racing Commission at Oaklawn Park, where Asmussen is leading trainer and Santana leading rider at the current meet, told the Paulick Report officials there have yet to decide what course of action, if any, to take in the wake of the allegations.
Chris Kay, CEO and President, New York Racing Association: “The New York Racing Association is concerned by the allegations that have been brought to The New York State Gaming Commission. We support the Gaming Commission and will fully cooperate with its investigation.
“The New York Racing Association takes the health and well-being of its equine athletes very seriously. Accordingly, we have taken action over the past year, in cooperation with the Gaming Commission, to ensure and enhance their safety. More recently, we have been privileged to have the expertise of newly appointed New York State Equine Medical Director Dr. Scott Palmer as we look to set the standard for equine safety regulations in the industry. We pledge to continue to work in partnership with the Gaming Commission and all industry stakeholders to promote the safety, integrity and transparency of our racing.”
Philip L. Hanrahan, CEO, National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, Inc.: “So far we have only heard PETA's allegations. We have not heard Mr. Asmussen's or Mr. Blasi's responses to the allegations, nor has the adjudicative process run its course. Until these events take place, any statement would be premature.”
Thoroughbred Racing Associations of North America: The TRA's position is the mistreatment of horses and the intentional violation of rules should be punished by swift and severe penalties.
Any allegations of mistreatment or callous disregard of the welfare and safety of horses and human participants should receive full investigation and prompt action.
Furthermore, in 2012, TRA members voted unanimously to advocate the Uniform Medication and Penalty Model Rules, developed by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and approved by the Racing Commissioners International (RCI). By the end of 2013, those policies had been adopted by many of the leading racing states, and efforts continue to ensure unanimous adoption in the current year.
The TRA urges all racing commissions to press for the immediate adoption of the Model Rules for the benefit of the sport, the racing public, and especially the racehorses in competition.
Terry Meyocks, National Manager of the Jockeys' Guild: “The Guild's main focus is, and will continue to be, safety for both horse and rider. Jockeys must be confident that the horses they ride are in the best condition, free from illegal medication or procedures that are not being properly administered in compliance with the rules and regulations that have been created by the industry, such as improper and abusive use of shock-wave therapy. Over the last several years, the Guild has worked with state racing commissions, the Association of Racing Commissioners International, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, The Jockey Club, and the NTRA Safety & Integrity Alliance advocating for severe penalties for medication violations and supports tightening of race day medication rules. Once the due process is completed, if any individual is found guilty of abuse, neglect or any other rule violation, they will suffer the consequences.
“The Guild has in the past and will continue to make riders aware of the consequences of violating any and all rules pertaining to jockeys.”
Craig Fravel, President and CEO, Breeders' Cup Ltd: “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 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.”
Jeff Blea, DVM, 2014 President, American Association of Equine Practitioners: “After viewing the video, I found numerous items to be disturbing and tasteless. My personal experience on the backside of the racetrack is that many horsemen and horsewomen sacrifice tremendously for the horses in their care; the horses are their priority.
The American Association of Equine Practitioners strongly advocates that all veterinary treatments and procedures be based upon an examination and medical diagnosis. Transparent and direct communication between the owner, trainer and veterinarian is essential for the well being of the racehorse.
Everyone involved in the sport of horse racing has a fundamental responsibility to respect the horse and put the health and welfare of the horse first, in all aspects of care.
The Jockey Club: The Jockey Club is aware of a recent media report involving disturbing allegations of animal cruelty and related matters.
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 underway 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.
National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, and Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (joint statement): “The allegations and incidents described in today's report by The New York Times are very disturbing. 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.”
Kentucky Horse Racing Commission: The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) has received documents from the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) regarding allegations of animal cruelty by licensees at Churchill Downs. The commission staff is currently reviewing the information.
The KHRC takes allegations of cruelty to animals very seriously. When our racing stewards are notified of any possible activity that involves cruelty to horses at licensed facilities, the stewards take prompt action to investigate and take the appropriate action. The KHRC strongly encourages anyone who has knowledge of, or suspects incidents of abuse to animals contact the commission immediately.
The KHRC will conduct a thorough investigation of these allegations and take appropriate steps once that investigation is concluded.”
New York State Gaming Commission: The New York State Gaming Commission has undertaken a formal investigation into allegations of abuse and mistreatment of thoroughbred race horses in New York State by licensed individuals. The investigation was initiated after the Commission was provided undercover evidence of alleged violations by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
“The allegations and footage provided by PETA are extremely troubling and we are fully investigating the matter,” said Robert Williams, Acting Executive Director of the New York State Gaming Commission. “PETA has offered to assist the Commission in its investigation, and we welcome such cooperation. We expect that all other parties involved will be forthcoming as well. If the results of our investigation find that licensed individuals violated the State's laws and rules, the Commission will consider all options.”
On Tuesday, March 18, PETA provided the New York State Gaming Commission with evidence and materials requesting an investigation into the conduct of several currently licensed individuals who participated in New York horse racing at Saratoga Race Course in July and August 2013. The individuals identified by PETA include: trainer Steve Asmussen, assistant trainer Scott Blasi, KDE Equine, LLC d/b/a Steve Asmussen Racing Stables, attending veterinarians Dr. Joseph F. Migliacci and Dr. James Hunt, and jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr.
The Commission initiated an investigation on March 18 and will obtain and review all footage documenting the allegations. The Office of Veterinary Affairs, led by Equine Medical Director Scott E. Palmer, VMD, is assisting in the investigation.
“The behavior depicted in the undercover video and supporting materials is disturbing and disgusting,” said Dr. Palmer. “We are working to determine what happened and ensure that proper protocols are put in place to prevent such actions from taking place again.”
Vince Mares, Executive Director, New Mexico Racing Commission: “We are very concerned with the actions documented in the video. A preliminary review reveals what appear to be two individuals who are also licensees of the New Mexico Racing Commission (trainer Steve Asmussen, jockey Ricardo Santana Jr.). New Mexico Racing Commission licensing standards require licensees to be of good moral character and integrity.
“Therefore, the NMRC will be conducting an inquiry into the actions of these individuals and will take disciplinary action as necessary.”