He trains Kentucky Derby contender Tapiture and Kentucky Oaks favorite Untapable, which would seem to put Steve Asmussen in an enviable position.
Not this year, when Derby week shapes up as an ordeal for Asmussen, a major figure in a firestorm that has rocked thoroughbred racing. The media at Churchill Downs will ask the second-leading trainer of all time many tough questions.
For six weeks, racing regulators in Kentucky and New York have been investigating allegations by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that Asmussen and his longtime assistant trainer, Scott Blasi, "forced injured and/or suffering horses to race and train."
Asmussen's attorney, Clark Brewster, characterized PETA as extremist and self-serving. "They want to make horse racing disappear, and many things they've said show they are people with no understanding of the sport," he said. "Steve's horses are meticulously cared for, and usually the best-looking specimens in the paddock.''
The New York State Gaming Commission also is probing PETA allegations that Ricardo Santana Jr. used a "battery," an electrical device to make a horse run faster. (Santana is scheduled to ride Tapiture in Saturday's Derby.) He has denied the allegation through his agent, Ruben Muñoz, who did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment.
Other PETA complaints against Asmussen concern "chronic misuse of drugs apparently to enhance horses' performance and mask injuries," and forcing undocumented workers to falsify IRS forms.
Bloodhorse.com reported that John Ward, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said he expects the investigations to take several months.
The New York Times first reported the allegations March 19, the same day PETA posted a 9 1/2-minute video on YouTube entitled "Horse Racing's Daily Double: Drugs and Death," stemming from a five-month undercover investigation of Asmussen's stables last year at Churchill and Saratoga.
A PETA employee identified only as "Beth" shot seven hours of video with a hidden camera while working for Asmussen. The YouTube clip contains foul language by Blasi, who talks about running Nehro, who finished second in the 2011 Kentucky Derby, despite chronic foot ailments. Blasi also makes insensitive comments about injured horses and calls Santana "a good [battery] rider.''
Brewster also spoke up for Blasi. "The most shocking part of the video is [Blasi's] language,'' he said. "He absolutely loves horses. He lives and breathes horses.''
Collateral damage was immediate. Asmussen was taken off the Hall of Fame ballot, and he fired Blasi. Ahmed Zayat, who owned Nehro, said he didn't know of his foot problems and took "10 to 14'' horses away from Asmussen. Jockey Club chairman Ogden Mills Phipps called for Asmussen to stay away from Churchill during Derby week "for the good of the game.''
Newsday asked PETA vice president Kathy Guillermo how she would improve the sport.
"I would ban all medication one week before a race and have a central pharmacy release all veterinary records of horses," said Guillermo, who also advocates increased testing for performance-enhancing drugs and stronger whipping rules. "If I were commissioner, I'd like to see all racing go to turf and not run on dirt and synthetic. I think all these things are certainly doable. We're waiting for some very strong reforms to be enacted."
When questioned about a possible PETA protest this week at Churchill, Guillermo said, "Honestly, we haven't decided.''
Said Brewster: "It might be an opportunity to gain more attention for [PETA's] cause, which is their main goal. HBO's 'Real Sports' said it wants to do something on , and we're going to cooperate with them. We want that story to be told honestly.
"But Steve's very resolute, and I think he'll do fine Derby week."