Whether you thought it was an agenda-driven “hit piece” or a sensationalized reflection of a troubled industry, the “HBO Real Sports” investigation of drugs and equine fatalities in Thoroughbred racing was painful to watch.
The horse racing segment on the 26-time Sports Emmy-winning cable program debuted on Tuesday and will be replayed multiple times throughout the next month. It focused, in part, on the PETA video charging the Steve Asmussen stable with animal cruelty, but also highlighted problems going back to the winter of 2012, when a spike in fatal breakdowns at Aqueduct led New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to appoint a special task force that would make preventative recommendations, along with the California Horse Racing Board's investigation of the seven sudden deaths in trainer Bob Baffert's stable.
It was ugly, and not just because of the series of videos and photos (22 by my count during the 20-minute segment) showing serious breakdowns, multi-horse spills, flapping fetlocks, dead horses, and even a horse being euthanized.
“Welcome to 'Real Sports,' where we begin tonight with an equine twist on a familiar topic of performance enhancing drugs,” said host Bryant Gumbel. “In sports like baseball, football and cycling, PEDs may be an annoyance to fans and officials, but in the world of horse racing they are causing widespread death. All across America these days in numbers that are far higher than the rest of the world, racehorses are dropping dead on the track. Behind that alarming trend, experts say, is a rampant drug culture, one governed by greed.”
Bernard Goldberg, who did the reporting and interviews, talked briefly about the pageantry of events like the Kentucky Derby that get so much attention this time of year.
“But there's another picture of horse racing in America,” said Goldberg, “a darker picture, one of a widespread drug culture that puts both horses and jockeys in danger.
“Just about everyone knows about the drug scandals in big time sports,” Goldberg added, “but they're nothing like what's happening in the so-called sport of kings, where trainers routinely drug healthy horses to make them run faster and injured horses so they can run through the pain. And the result is often disaster.”
Penn National racetrack veterinarian Dr. Kate Papp was introduced by Goldberg as being from the “part of an industry that often hides what's going on from the public, refusing to release accident rates and autopsy reports. And when a horse goes down, they cover it up…literally.”
Papp, who testified before a U.S. House Committee in 2012 about medication abuse in racing, talked about a horse named Prima Zip that she treated at Penn National last year. “X-rays showed a stress fracture of one hind leg,” she said. “I was sure Prima Zip needed rest.” When the City Zip colt's connections opted to run him in a $5,000 claiming race in November, Prima Zip was pulled up with a catastrophic injury and later euthanized.”
Goldberg then turned to the Aqueduct carnage, interviewing Kentucky Horse Racing Commission Equine Medical Director Dr. Mary Scollay, who was a member of the Cuomo task force. Scollay called the high death rate in the winter of 2012 “very disturbing” and cited the lucrative purse levels Aqueduct was offering. “When the purse is worth more than the horse, the horse becomes a commodity,” she said.
Goldberg picked up the story from there.
“The dead horses included one called Coronado Heights, which, it turns out, received 17 injections in the week before he died. The horse's trainer wasn't some low-level rookie. He was the leading money winner in all of America, Todd Pletcher.
“And Pletcher is not the only top trainer who's had medicated horses die. In 2013, Kentucky Derby winning trainer Bob Baffert was investigated after seven of his horses suddenly dropped dead in California, most from heart attacks. The racing board found that Baffert didn't break any rules or act improperly, but each of his horses had been on this: Thyroxine, a drug that increases heart rate. Baffert says he stopped using it.”
“Then,” Goldberg went on, “there's Steve Asmussen, who's among the sport's all-time leaders in career wins with over 6,000, but also has 28 drug violations. Asmussen says the reason he has so many drug positives is because each state has its own set of rules, which he says makes it easy to make a mistake.”
That led the segment into the PETA video, compiled by an operative of the radical animal rights group who gained employment in Asmussen's stable last year. Goldberg briefly interviewed Scott Blasi, Asmussen's longtime former assistant who is seen in much of the PETA video using profane language, discussing horse injuries, the illegal use by jockeys of electrical devices on horses and treatments such as pin- firing and shock-wave machines.
“You're calling these horses rats and (expletive) and then you say you really care about them,” Goldberg said to Blasi. “Who are you kidding?”
Blasi, in his first on-camera interview since Asmussen reportedly fired him days after the PETA video surfaced, stammered: “When you look at it, you're taken back, but I think if anybody could understand everything that we put into this, and how much care these animals get…”
Goldberg brought up a filly named Finesse, who died of an apparent heart attack at Oaklawn Park after finishing second in a March 21 race.
“Was that horse on drugs?” Goldberg asked.
“Lasix. That's it,” Blasi told him.
Goldberg said Arkansas authorities kept Finesse's autopsy secret but that a track veterinarian told “Real Sports” the filly was “on a cocktail of drugs: Lasix, clenbuterol and Thyroxine – the same drug found in the seven horses that died under trainer Bob Baffert.”
Goldberg asked Asmussen what drugs were given to Finesse.
“She did race on Lasix,” the trainer said.
“Just Lasix?” asked Goldberg.
“She was treated with, as you mentioned, legal limits of therapeutic medications. Clenbuterol. It's a bronchodilator. We do feed Thyroxine.”
Goldberg pointed out that Thyroxine “speeds up metabolism and heart rate” and tried to connect the thyroid drug to Finesse's heart attack.
“Feeding Thyro L (a brand of Thyroxine) is not to increase the heart rate,” said Asmussen.
“But it does,” Goldberg interjected.
“One of the side effects of it,” said Asmussen.
“Real Sports” got ahold of the 2-year-old filly's veterinary records and showed them to Dr. Papp, who said the combination of medications Flyfly Fly Delilah had received suggested some kind of “underlying painful or disease condition because this horse was being given anti-inflammatories and pain maskers…and then that combined with anabolic steroids, which is meant to bulk up a horse, can be quite deadly, and obviously it was in this case.”
James Rivera's wife, June, a former jockey, was distraught when she saw the vet records. “We have three kids,” she said. “It changed their lives.”
“But it's what hasn't changed in the last six years that angers June Rivera and other critics of the sport,” said Goldberg. “Across the industry, rules and enforcement against drug use, they say, remain as lax as ever.”
Goldberg spoke with Dr. Scollay again, asking her how many states outside of New York have adopted the recommendations of Gov. Cuomo's task force – recommendations, incidentally, that were widely credited for causing a significant reduction in horse deaths at Aqueduct.
She struggled to name a state.
“The answer is none, right?” said Goldberg.
“Perhaps other racetracks in other jurisdictions looked and said, 'Well, that's not our problem and so we don't need to respond to it,'” Scollay said. “There's no excuse for us not doing better than we are doing.”
That wrapped up the segment, with Gumbel and Goldberg back in the studio to discuss it.
“Bernie, I hope I get these names right,” Gumbel said. “Pletcher, Baffert, Asmussen –trainers like them. Why aren't these guys being punished?”
“Because they're not breaking the rules, for the most part,” said Goldberg. “They all have drug violations, but they're not breaking the rules, and here's why: The drugs that they are administering are legal. Let me give you one example. Baffert had seven horses drop dead, most from heart attacks. Investigation in California and he's cleared. Why? Because the drugs are legal. But he was giving all of his horses drugs for a thyroid condition and he never tested to see if they had a thyroid problem, and he's cleared.”
“So who's responsible for speaking for the horses, for protecting the horses?” asked Gumbel.
“The trainers and the owners and vets would say, 'We care about the horses,'” said Goldberg. “You heard somebody in this story say it – Blasi said, 'I care about the horses.'
“They all say they care about the horses, but they are administering drugs to horses that don't need drugs for any therapeutic reason, only to get them to run faster or to mask an injury that may cause a breakdown and the horse's demise.”
To which Gumbel replied: “Very disturbing.”
That won't be the last word. On June 4, another investigative program, Showtime's “60 Minutes Sports,” will focus its attention on the subject of drugs and horseracing. It doesn't figure to be any prettier.
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