On the Record: Trainers speak candidly about PETA investigation
By Teresa Genaro
As was likely the case at backstretches across the country last week, conversations at Florida’s tracks and training centers continued to focus on the New York Times’ story on PETA’s undercover investigation at Steve Asmussen’s Churchill Downs and Saratoga barns last year.
Public commentary has been plentiful, abundant in insight, in stridency, in commitment, in sanctimony, in determination, in anger, in defensiveness, in desperation. It’s been written by fans, journalists, executives, and observers. People have talked about what needs to be learned from the incident, what needs to be done next.
In conversations last week, both on and off the record, trainers acknowledged the need to both enact reform and educate the public. They expressed dismay about the possibility of being recorded in both private and public moments, at having one’s worst moments broadcast out of context, at what they saw as both sensational and misleading in the video and the coverage, pointing specifically to the comment about the lack of a pulse in Nehro’s feet being portrayed as a sign of poor condition, when in fact it is, according to multiple commenters, a sign of health.
Five trainers agreed to speak on the record, offering their reactions to what they saw and their hopes for the good to come out of it. Trainers’ comments have been edited for length and clarity.
The video is a simple invasion of life that you hope isn’t happening at any point in your life, whether it’s at work or at home. You like to think you have a certain amount of privacy in your life. But I understand investigative journalism and that’s the way it goes. It’s probably a good wake-up call for people, not only in our business but in our private lives.
I think we’ve all been in those positions where you’ve been frustrated with a horse that has continual issues. You really aren’t trying to abuse them; you’re trying to help them through those issues. Whether it’s here at the track or somebody that has a pleasure horse that they want to ride on Saturdays, and they go out to the barn and he’s lame every Saturday, they work all week to get him sound and then he’s sore again the next Saturday. They’re livestock and they have issues and just like people, they have things that nag at them. Obviously [Nehro] had his feet. I think it’s a jump to call it animal cruelty from what I’ve seen.
I don’t know who could argue with having [more consistent regulations]. It would be much easier if we had some rules that cross the lines of states. I think the medications are definitely abused—[there’s a] “if it works, I should give more of it” kind of mentality, and that’s not the right way to think.
I’ve talked to vets that have said that some people think that if 5cc of Lasix is good, which is the normal dose, then 10 cc must be better. You have to think about what it’s doing to the horse when you do something like that.
It’s sad that we didn’t have a central voice to speak for our game, because there are so many good people in it and so many well-cared-for horses.
I don’t know how you go about instituting [a commissioner]. I was talking to one of my clients the other day, and it’s a little different, a commissioner representing 32 teams and a commissioner representing 48,000 owners. I don’t know if we need to appoint a commissioner as much as a ruling body that we all need to get licensed under, and abide by the rules and the disciplinary actions and what the courts say for owners, trainers, whoever.
In the last 10 or 15 years, it has been blatantly obvious that some owners are drawn to people that they perceive are doing the wrong things, which is sad. Some of them are the same people who get up and clamor for change.
I think there’s got to be more clarification than what was in that video. A lot of that stuff was taken out of context. As they said, eight months wound up with eight minutes.
I think we have to have people understand that what we do is medication; it’s therapy. We’re doing it to help horses run at the best of their abilities, but the way it looked is like we just randomly drug horses and shock them and do this and do that and we don’t.
If any good can come of this, it’s clarifying the message, and if there’s any wrong doing, then people have to be punished more severely than what they’ve been.
The comments about Nehro and about losing a horse when you know he was bad—you just can’t have a mindset like that about what you’re doing. I know it’s a business, but we still have a responsibility. We have to be responsible for their well-being. You can’t just lead one over there and hope someone takes them and they break down and you go, ‘That’s great.'” I think that’s got to change.
And unfortunately, you can go through any barn and you would hear people say things. You’re back and forth for different things, you’re not aware what they’re doing if you see a horse being worked on, not aware that the horse isn’t running the next day.
You just never know. I think you’re supposed to be able to trust people. They’re having dinner, you’ve got Gary Stevens and Wayne Lukas sitting there talking about the old days, and right away your ears go up. “Wow, they said this,” but that was the old days.
Maybe now there will be more regulation, and maybe people will start worrying more about some of these designer drugs as opposed to worrying about stopping Lasix. It takes something like this to make everyone aware of what’s going on. They’ve had years to try to clamp down on things, and what have they done? I think absolutely we should have one national governing body, but it’s all political—no state wants to give up their own authority.
Hopefully this will get something done to clamp down on the abusers. We’re just always behind the curve with testing.
Most of the things shown were legal. We do inject horses’ hocks. But there’s a time frame, and the bottom line is that some horses need that kind of work. But if you’re showing those kind of things and people aren’t aware of it, aren’t aware that it’s a legal, proper treatment, they’re going to say, ‘”Oh my God, look what they’re doing, they’re sticking a needle in.” Those things have to be clarified.
It’s about trying to get people educated. You’re watching a football game, a guy walks off the field and goes to get a shot of lidocaine in his knee. Lidocaine? We can’t do that. You get ruled off for life for doing something like that.
I know that the horses can’t speak for themselves. But that’s our judgment: we’re supposed to be able to help them.
Hopefully, something positive comes out of this because it was really nasty. It’s a nightmare.
Francis “Tres” Abbott III
Good had better come out of this, though the only people that really did anything against the rules of racing were Wayne Lukas and Gary Stevens, and that’s all seemed to kind of blow over.
You take your horses away from Steve Asmussen and send them to Lukas, who was in the video? It just doesn’t make any sense.
I think we need one single governing body. I mean, you could literally spend months writing down what people do. I went into the tack shop down here, where jockeys shop, and I was looking at a pair of rain pants for a jockey, and there were zippers on them.
I was with a jockey, and she asked, “What’s that for?” They said, “They’re pockets. She said, “What do you need pockets for?” You don’t need a pocket when you’re race riding in the afternoon.
The Jockey Club needs to step forward, things like the NTRA needs to be absorbed into The Jockey Club. It’s so fragmented, and no one really does anything. Let’s be honest.
It’s great for Barry Irwin and Barry Weisbord to write things about what needs to be done, but no one’s said, “Hey, let’s do something.”
There are a whole lot of people saying, “This is the way it needs to be,” but they’re not in the barns every morning. It’s not as straightforward [as people think].
If people could access the sport and had a better understanding of it, then things like the Asmussen scandal or whatever you want it call it would be easier for them to understand. The sport’s got to change the way that fans access the video.
I’m concerned about it. We got to do something, do something big-time.
I think Lasix lowers the starts per horse per year. The Triple Crown hasn’t been won since the addition of Lasix to the sport because it dehydrates horses. You can’t run them back as quickly, and when you can’t run them back as quickly, it affects the racing office, and it affects the owners because the owners can’t run for purse money as much.
I’m not opposed to a sport without Lasix whatsoever.
As far as some of the other tools, as far as the injections and stuff like that, a lot of that’s positive. You inject a horse’s ankles, you’re trying to slow down degenerative join disease, which is a good thing.
If you’re not going to do it for therapeutic reasons, don’t do it at all. The AAEP [American Association of Equine Practitioners] could probably jump in on that one. They’d still get the work, but they’d be doing more for helping joints.
They were scoping horses to see if they had mucus, if they were sick. They were having horses in whirlpool tubs. They were injecting stifle joints and shoulder joints, and sometimes you need to do some of those things to help an athlete. You’re trying to help the horse. Gastrogard is an ulcer medication.
Where is the point of abuse? What do you consider abuse? What about putting a tongue tie on? If the horse doesn’t like it until he gets used to it, is that abusive?
We put glue-on shoes if a horse has a little bit of sore feet. Is that abuse, or is that trying to help the horse? It’s a fine line.
Obviously there are people who abuse in the business; they do inject illegal drugs. But what about all the good things? I’ve never been in Asmussen’s barn, but I’ve people say they do massages on horses, and they do acupuncture. There are so many things we do to try to help a horse, and none of that was on the video.
When you have a vet working over a period of time on many different horses and then you combine them all together, it just looks really bad.
Look at these horses. Look at the feed programs we have them on. You go out in the field and look at horses that sit in people’s backyard. They don’t look like these horses look.
I think we need to educate people. I just don’t know how we go about doing it.