Trust and Consequences – The Steve Asmussen Saga

It was Hemingway who first pointed out that the only way to find out whether you can trust someone is to trust him. About ten years after the great writer placed his last ounce of trust in a double-barrelled shotgun, my algebra teacher wrote the following into my yearbook:

“Love many. Trust few. Learn to paddle your own canoe.”

These words of wisdom come to mind because the latest developments in the case of PETA vs. Asmussen currently being waged in the court of public opinion suggest that there is such a thing as one love too many, and that in this case, too much trust was extended to too many, to the detriment of all.

While there are quite a few similarities between the Asmussen affair and basketball’s Los Angeles Clipper ownership scandal (which ran nearly concurrently last spring), at least Donald Sterling got two billion dollars in Microsoft money for his team and his trouble. Asmussen, along with his top assistant Scott Blasi and the truth, just got screwed.

Now that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) has made their findings known (a separate report from New York’s Gaming Commission is expected within the next few weeks), we’ve assembled a timeline that may be helpful in summarizing what went down.

April 13, 2013 – PETA’s undercover investigator is licensed as a stable employee for Steve Asmussen by the KHRC.

[It seems likely that the undercover investigator’s relationship with Scott Blasi and the Asmussen stable predates the licensing date by a few months. In the comments section of Gina Rarick’s France Galop blog, “Jo Parker” stated last April that there was an 8-month period of romance and investigation and videotaping, rather than the reported 4-month period. This comment is followed by one from “Clark” (with a hyperlink that connects to the site of the law firm representing Asmussen) who notes that Parker has “a firm understanding of the facts” regarding the PETA investigator’s actions; and also stating that he represents Asmussen and Blasi, and that he would like to speak with her.]

May 4, 2013 – Nehro is humanely destroyed. Orb wins the Kentucky Derby.

August 16, 2013 – Roughly four months after having been licensed by the KHRC, PETA’s investigator sends a text to Scott Blasi offering her apologies. When Blasi asks why she is apologizing, she texts “Just am. I like you and think that you’re a great person.” Classic breakup speak. Presumably, this represents the end of the PETA investigator’s stated four-month term as both Asmussen employee and Blasi girlfriend. [This from page 5 of the KHRC’s report, which identifies the PETA investigator, but we will refer to her from hereon as simply “KR”, lest we be accused of being part of the patriarchy’s goon squad, but mostly because she’s already suffered enough.]

March 17, 2014 – KR telephones Blasi, who subsequently told the KHRC that she was “… hysterical. Telling me what a good person I was”. From this we surmise that KR has now seen the edited video, and knows the license plate of the bus that will run over her ex-boyfriend in a couple of mornings.

March 18, 2014 – KR texts Blasi at 4:22 in the morning, reminding him that he is a good person. The KHRC receives a letter and a video and other documentation from PETA (with a similar package sent to the racing authorities in New York). Included in this mailing is a list of fifteen horses in Asmussen’s barn that PETA asserted were “maintained in poor physical condition and forced to run at Churchill Downs while in unfit condition.” Included in this list is a 3-year-old filly named Untapable. [Last night Untapable was the only unanimous winner of a 2014 Eclipse Award, as champion 3-year-old filly.]

March 19, 2014 – PETA posts a video on its web site, and The New York Times publishes PETA Accuses Two Trainers of Cruelty to Horses. All hell breaks loose. [Asmussen fires Blasi. Asmussen’s name is yanked from the Racing Hall of Fame ballot. The Jockey Club suggests that Asmussen should not sully the Kentucky Derby with his presence this year. Among other things.]

April 29, 2014 – Scott Blasi is interviewed by the KHRC.

April 30, 2014 – PETA tells that they have given seven hours of video to the New York State Gaming Commission, and that they are “arranging to do so” for the KHRC.

May 16, 2014 – PETA informs the KHRC via email (see page 4 of the KHRC report) that all relevant information pertaining to their March 18th complaint was provided with that complaint. Despite repeated requests from the KHRC, PETA never provided either the 7 hours of video, or the “285-page report” (KR’s notes and other documentation) that was provided to the Times. So much for cooperating with the KHRC’s investigation.

May 28, 2014 – PETA investigator KR is interviewed by the KHRC.

June 2, 2014 – Steve Asmussen is interviewed by the KHRC.

July 29, 2014 – Joe Drape reports in The New York Times that Scott Blasi has been rehired by Steve Asmussen, and is working at Saratoga. “We are better with him”, Asmussen told the Daily Racing Form.

[The speculation here is that either Asmussen had always intended to bring Blasi back once the heat had been lowered, or, that the winds blowing from the KHRC – and perhaps also the New York commission – had led him to understand that he could likely rehire Blasi without just having to fire him all over again.]

Asmussen’s rehiring of Blasi was the last significant development in the case until last week, when the KHRC released its 27-page report, clearing both Asmussen and Blasi of any rules violations. PETA responded to this news in its typically calm and even-handed way by stating that the KHRC had “today distinguished itself for being as uninterested in horse welfare as the Syrian government is in human suffering.” Unsurprisingly, Joe Drape opted for PETA’s not-insane quote in his story on the KHRC report.

The fact that Blasi and KR were lovers never arises in Drape’s reporting. Sure, they are not exactly Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman (or even – to compare more accurately – Claude Rains and Bergman), but the “Notorious” aspect of this case is something that many people find hard to set aside, and it’s curious that it gets no mention in the Times. It’s one thing to be a duplicitous undercover investigator in service to a goal that you deem to be altruistic, but to also be sleeping with the subject of your investigation seems to be out of bounds to some people.

While Blasi clearly screwed up by placing so much trust in KR, there are aspects of the KHRC report that suggest Joe Drape and the Times similarly placed way too much trust in PETA. In his original March 19 story, Drape runs with a section of the PETA video where the ill-fated Nehro is revealed to have no pulse in his right foot and barely a pulse in his left foot. This lack of a pulse in Nehro’s feet is clearly framed in Drape’s story as a negative, but the problem is – as the KHRC report makes clear, and as any equine vet could have told you – the absence of a pulse in a horse’s foot is a good thing, because pulses are detectable in horses’ feet only when there is inflammation present. That this and other aspects of the KHRC report are never mentioned in Drape’s story is weak. In fact, he uses the news of the KHRC report to merely uncritically rehash PETA’s claims, and to repeat other hot-button facts that have appeared multiple times in his stories over the years. Times readers place a lot of trust in their newspaper to report the facts fairly, and here they deserved better. [Disclosure: I have never met Mr. Drape, although I have been an employee in the circulation department of the New York Times for nearly fifteen years.]

It’s understandable that people may be skeptical about the KHRC findings, but I found their approach to be both quite sensible and – in the spirit of the day – driven by data and analysis. It is reasonable for the KHRC to wonder why, if PETA deemed these thoroughbreds to be so ill-treated, they did not anonymously drop a dime to the KHRC at that time, rather than wait ten months to send a letter and get a big story in the Times six weeks before Derby Day. And the data that the KHRC analyzed (Asmussen’s racetrack fatalities versus industry standards; his horses that were scratched by veterinarians versus all vet scratches in Kentucky; his horses’ race-related non-fatal injuries in Kentucky versus the general population’s) tend to show one result … that Asmussen’s statistics here are typical for the industry and typical for Kentucky. [Of course, “typical for horse racing” is no great compliment, but that’s for another story.]

PETA’s aim is to make guys like Asmussen out to be monsters, when what they really are is typical (albeit above average, results-wise). This is where PETA goes wrong. Instead of seeing decent people operating in a flawed environment and turning their efforts towards improving the environment, PETA’s approach is to demonize decent people and try to destroy any environment they deem to be flawed. Small wonder they have so few friends.

Within a few weeks we should see if the New York Gaming Commission concurs with the KHRC. The betting here is that they will. But even if Asmussen and Blasi are cleared by the NYGC, there is still the remaining issue of PETA’s complaints about wages and phony Social Security numbers, which fall under the jurisdiction of state labor boards and the Internal Revenue Service. If Asmussen does not escape these charges, some people are bound to say it would be like getting Al Capone on tax evasion, and I suppose that could be true. If, that is, Steve Asmussen were a mass-murdering crime boss, or Al Capone was a better-than-average thoroughbred horse trainer with some blemishes on his record, and who might have employed some undocumented workers.