It's time to move on. Finally.
Twenty months have passed since People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released a sensational hidden-camera video that purported to portray Eclipse Award-winning trainer Steve Asmussen's stable as a callous operation that treated horses as commodities, indiscriminately gave them drugs, and relied on a foul-mouthed assistant who appeared to be saying he helped undocumented immigrants get racing licenses and suggested the barn's go-to jockey carried an illegal electrical device to stimulate horses.
PETA filed letters of complaint with federal and state authorities, including the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and the New York State Gaming Commission, where the hidden camera videos were recorded by an undercover PETA operative who had secured employment with the Asmussen stable.
In January of this year, the Kentucky commission issued a report that exonerated Asmussen of any wrongdoing. The New York commission, in issuing its report on Monday, said the most serious charges from PETA against the stable were unfounded but fined Asmussen $10,000 for giving the supplement thyroxine 24 hours before a race instead of 48 hours.
Asmussen has been sued by the U.S. Department of Labor, which said he owes overtime pay to a number of current and past employees.
“PETA accused the Asmussen stable of high crimes and misdemeanors – horse abuse, deliberate indifference to their care, and violating immigration laws – with highly edited and polished pieces,” said Clark Brewster, an attorney for Asmussen who also has horses with the stable. “They vindicated him across the board. No abuse of horses, no wrongful medication, no intending to cheat or mistreat. They laid it all to rest.”
This was a serious matter within the horse racing industry that became a human tragedy when a former Asmussen employee, Harry “Hub” Johnson took his own life 10 days after the PETA charges surfaced. According to a story in the Louisville Courier-Journal, several suicide notes Johnson left referred to the secretly recorded videos.
In the wake of the PETA charges, a decision was made by the National Museum of Racing board of trustees to remove Asmussen's name from the 2014 ballot for the horse racing Hall of Fame. He was left off the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot, too.
Asmussen, a 50-year-old native of South Dakota, is second in career wins (7,164) and fourth by money won ($234.5 million) among all trainers. He's won two Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer and conditioned Curlin (twice) and Rachel Alexandra to Horse of the Year titles.
Critics of Asmussen piled on after the March 2014 PETA charges. Jockey Club chairman Ogden Mills Phipps, in a rare public commentary, advised Asmussen to avoid the cameras and public scrutiny by staying away from Churchill Downs for the 2014 Kentucky Oaks and Derby. Asmussen declined, not just showing up, but winning the Oaks with Untapable for longtime client Ron Winchell. Some owners left Asmussen, including Ahmed Zayat, who was called a vulgar name by stable assistant Scott Blasi in the PETA video.
Attorney Brewster said Asmussen has been completely cooperative through all the investigations.
“Steve's position was total transparency,” Brewster said. “They took training charts, medication records, interviewed his veterinarians, owners and staff. Nothing was off grounds. I guarantee you, nobody in the industry has been more carefully scrutinized than Steve at this point. He's gone through 30 or 40 hours of interviews. We went through immigration department, labor commissions, everything. You talk about an assault: Steve has been dragged through the mud, but he has been vindicated fully.”
Brewster said he and Asmussen will have a “deliberate, careful discussion” about a possible appeal of the fine in New York.”
Will Asmussen consider filing suit against PETA?
“He should,” said Brewster. “I don't know of anybody who has been more cruelly and unjustifiably defamed in an industry setting like this. All he wants to do is take care of his horses and be with his family. Whether he wants to take on all the challenges of filing a lawsuit, I don't know.”
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