PETA "Hit and Run" Tactics Strike the Racing Industry

Opinion by Jaime Jackson

Recently brought to the news front in the New York Times is PETA's (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) assail of race horse breeder/trainer Steve Asmussen and his top assistant, trainer/manager Scott Blasi, accusing both of "subjecting their horses to cruel and injurious treatments, administering drugs to them for non-therapeutic purposes, and having one of their jockeys use an electrical device to shock horses into running faster." Of course, these sorts of abominations are not new, anymore than the continued abuse of "Big Lick" Tennessee Walkers and other high action gaited horses that the 1970 Horse Protection Act has failed to rein in.

Chained, padded, banded, and drugged for the "Big Lick" -- failure of the 1970 Horse Protection Act.
Wanted by the AANHCP for ethical violations against equines: the Obama Administration for doing nothing about it.

I can recall myself as a farrier in the 1970s witnessing first hand the blatant drugging of horses and other atrocities committed in "off track" backwoods racing venues, as well as the dirty stuff going on under the unwatchfull eyes of mainline track stewards. Nevertheless, the NYT article (read here) and PETA's related video (view here -- ****warning****: the images caught by PETA's undercover investigator are gruesome and not for the feint of heart) are worth reviewing if you care about what is happening to young Thoroughbreds on the race track today. So that you know, on average 24 horses suffer fatal accidents on the track every week, and a staggering 10,000 more are broken down and sent to slaughter each year. It is truly terrible, and something the AANHCP will pursue further in the name of our advocacy.

Wanted by the AANHCP for ethical violations against equines: race horse trainer Steve Asmussen.
(Photo: Danny Johnston/Associated Press

While the AANHCP supports PETA's exposure of the racing industry, their "hit and run" tactics as a means of resolution doesn't really leave these horses in a better place, or at least a whole lot better place, and maybe worse! Unless NHC -- the AANHCP vital mission, to be precise -- is brought to the table, they will be subjected to the same harmful standards that are, by and large, accepted as the "norm" among lawmakers, racing commissioners, race track stewards and veterinarians, jockeys, undocumented "hired hands", and people like Asmussen and Blasi who are clueless about humane horse care practices. In fact, this entire axis of proponents of the racing industry is all about gambling and profiteering -- certainly not the well being of horses, as the evidence rolled out by PETA unequivocally demonstrates.

What, in contrast to PETA, would the AANHCP do about this?

On the one hand, PETA asks that their audience support the "Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2013, Senate Bill 973 and House Bill 2012". A summary of the law written by the Congressional Research Service can be read here. Basically, the law promises to punish anyone who uses drugs illegally on horses. Not that they can't be used necessarily -- restrictions would only by placed on who, when and how they are used. In effect, what was done illegally could then be done legally. The proposed legislation leaves loopholes in the language so large that  Asmussen, Blasi and their contracted vets must have co-authored the bill! But the law seems doomed, regardless, as the U.S. government's own grim statistics show that the law has only a 19% chance of being enacted. PETA fails to point any of this out. We would have.

The AANHCP takes a different approach. First, we understand the animal himself -- his biology and what he needs to be genuinely healthy and not abused. Clearly, neither Asmussen, nor his aides in the field, nor PETA's own investigator really understood the underlying problems facing the horses in the video footage. By this, I mean the pathologies shown in the feet were misdiagnosed and the treatments were contraindicated. Further, the violations of the natural gaits were never addressed, the stressful caged environments not given a thought or word, the harmful diets ignored, and clear communications from the horses themselves were completely misread. While the violent transgressions against the animals at the track stables were captured and sufficiently edited by PETA to bring out the tears and the donations from the pockets of their uninformed supporters, the deeper problems that would bring 10,000 more to slaughter each year were never discussed. It's not that PETA and the New York Times staff writer neglected this intentionally, I believe they simply didn't know what those larger, more entrenched problems were. In that sense, the PETA faction is no better off in their understanding of the animal than Asmussen or Blasi on the other side. And, from the AANHCP perspective, therein lies the greatest tragedy. Because until that darker realm in the penumbra of the race track disaster is understood, and addressed appropriately, the ghastly pipeline sending Thoroughbreds (and other horse breeds) to the track to perish or breakdown will remain wide open.

The AANHCP leadership has an angle and way to dig straight through to the heart of this equine holocaust. During the video, my colleague Jill Willis and I were surprised to see that one of the owners -- Ahmed Zayat (read about him here -- of the abused horses trained and run by Asmussen's stable, had been in contact with Jill in 2013. We even sent him some of our educational materials (including a copy of Founder: Prevention and Cure the Natural Way) to help him understand why his horses were having serious foot problems. We never heard back from him. The video makes it clear why -- an irritated Blasi complained in his customary stream of profanity, "Fucking cunt [Zayat] should have retired the horse a year ago. They should have retired him from racing a year ago." At this point, we don't know if Zayat was simply going forward on the reckless advice of Asmussen, or implicitly and willfully negligent in looking after the welfare of his horses.

Wanted by the AANHCP for ethical violations against equines: race horse owner Ahmed Zayat.

Whichever the case, thanks to Blasi, Zayat has been inadvertently exposed. But he -- along with thousands of other race horse owners -- remains in the shadows of PETA's exposure of Asmussen. So far as we are concerned, Zayat needs to be brought into the light of accountability, and given the opportunity to make amends for his negligence or complicity -- basically running his animals as though they are sacrificial. The AANHCP needs to confront him, publicly if need be, to arouse his conscience and get him to embrace NHC. We should approach Asmussen as well. Blasi, clearly the foul-mouthed focal point of the video, was fired by Asmussen within days of the breaking story, likely part of a hush deal. Like politicians caught with their mistresses, however, he is bound to surface again once the political fireworks have ended, and continue on like he used to, because that's all he knows and because he's good at it -- if we are to gauge his success by the $-millions Asmussen profits from his stable.

But Blasi also struck me as being more than a one-dimensional psychopath intent on keeping horses running at whatever cost. Almost paradoxically, he confided another side of himself to PETA's undercover agent amid his vulgarity and cruel practices, a fact easy to miss if one is simply swept along by the grueling visual current of horses suffering in the video footage. Blasi gives us perspective when he explains early on to the investigator, "You could not believe how many [horses] they hurt and kill before they ever even get to the race track. It's mind-boggling," and if they make it to the track, "They'll fucking break your fucking heart every fucking day, these cocksuckers. There's always something wrong with them." Those don't strike me as the words of a cold-blooded murderer, but as a pressure-cooked human being caught up in a disastrous microcosm of moral and ethical decay in which everyone is willing to look the other way while demanding results at any price. Including pressure, we can assume, from horse owners like Zayat. Citing the Saratoga Race Course as an example, Blasi continues,"[It] is hard on horses, man. Everybody wants their horses here. It's the hardest place in the world on 'em. You ought to see these limping motherfuckers, I see this son of a bitch out here jogging every day. It's fucking horrible." Ironically, Blasi is the only person in the video to decry the inhumanity of their collective practices.

So, part of me is left to conclude -- and this may be difficult for some to swallow -- that what is going on in the imploded world of Blasi is not actually unique. Arguably, the practices are internationally ubiquitous. It is a fact that many, possibly most, horse owners, in all equestrian disciplines, bring harm to their horses because their micro-cultures consider horses to be expendable commodities, and/or, barring the inevitable psychopaths who turn up here and there, because they don't know better or they simply don't know what to do. Horse owners more often than not just do what the "experts" tell them to do. What is natural and healthy for the horse is almost vague and irrelevant, and in some places a matter of misrepresentation, denigration and taboo. The violence in Blasi's world is just more pronounced and concentrated than most (but not all!) equestrian disciplines due to the inherent demands of horse racing. Knowing what I do about the care of horses broadly across the horse world, I don't really believe Blasi or Asmussen want their horses to purposely break down. That costs them money, and a lot of it. Like everyone else, they just do what their experts tell them to do -- even if it's illegal, unethical, or illogical by NHC standards.

A glaring example of this was churned up in the video when PETA's investigator queried James Hunt, DVM, identified as "New York's top racing veterinarian", caught in the act of blanket dosing every horse in Asmussen's barn with Lasix.* When asked why he was giving them a drug for which there was no apparent clinical rationale or justification, he explained as a matter of fact, "They basically all run on it. It makes them lighter." To Hunt, ethics was never an issue, because in his mind, he was just following orders from Blasi. In fact, he went public on this point in another NYT article published in 2012, arguing -- and I will add in opposition to ethical standards espoused in that article by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) -- that "trainers make nearly 100 percent of all veterinarian decisions regarding the medication of their horses." Dr. Hunt might atone by learning to serve the humane interests of the horse first, and not the trainers he is hiding behind. But as AAEP vice-president, Dr. Jeff Blea, explains, “You are talking about decades and generations of the way things are done.”  

[*A diuretic included on the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned drug list due to its alleged use as a masking agent for other drugs; it has also been used to prevent Thoroughbred and Standardbred race horses from bleeding through the nose during races.]

Veterinary clash with Hippocratic Oath
Wanted by the AANHCP for ethical violations against equines: James Hunt, DVM

It seems to me there is an excellent opportunity here to make right something that is blatantly wrong through the simple introduction of NHC practices and common sense. I have absolutely no faith in PETA's recommendation to support Senate Bill 973 and House Bill 2012. As I've said, it would only legitimize James Hunt's unethical practices and feed the profits of the veterinary, pharmaceutical and carcass rendering industries. Fortunately, the bill is failing in both congressional committees. Instead, we should corner those responsible and say, "Look, there's a way to race horses that isn't harmful, that appeals to their specie's natural propensity to compete and such that they will run faster without breaking down, that will save you a lot of money in farrier/vet bills, and that will get PETA off your back." The AANHCP knows what to do, and how to do it.

Don't stand down -- you can help us in this effort by becoming a supporting member of the AANHCP.

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