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Thursday, March 27, 2014

OK To Shoot The Messenger

I have to apologize, partly for the gap in posting (I'm trying to keep up, but I'm busy!), but more for writing last time that I hadn't started to watch the PETA videos.  You see, I was under the impression that there was significantly more than nine minutes and 29 seconds of it out there to watch.  After all, Joe Drape did write in his article that "The investigator used a hidden camera to record more than seven hours of video," so I ass-umed that the link attached to seven hours of video led to, if not actually seven hours of video, at least substantially more than the selected nine minutes and 29 seconds that we've seen, which is odious in both some of the behavior that it depicts, and the obvious selectivity and distortion in what is presented.

This is not an "edit" of the larger video, as it has been portrayed in the mainstream press, including on   That's like saying that the trailer for "50 to 1" is an "edited video" of the movie.  The PETA video is nothing more than a trailer.  It picks out selected highlights - the ones that they want you to see - sets it to ominous music and dramatic voice-overs to enhance its effect.  It's a sales job. (Unfortunately, the "50 to 1" trailer fails in its mission to make it seem like the movie won't suck.)  Ostensibly focused on its specific targets, it is filled with broad generalizations that are merely hearsay.  "Trainers will do just about anything to gain an advantage, regardless of the consequences to the horses."  "From birth to death, most horses used for racing are treated like disposable commodities."  "During nationally televised races, owners and trainers will wax on about how much they love their horses, here's what they say when they think the cameras aren't rolling."  Of course, in the video they is nobody other than Scott Blasi!

Now we're told that PETA will dole out more video leading up to the Derby, in an obvious and contrived attempt to maximize the impact.  Some have speculated that the Times will be complicit and report on any subsequent releases in lockstep.  However, we've also been led to believe that the Times has indeed reviewed the seven hours of tape.  To selectively report on other matters that it has already seen on a piecemeal basis would be so blatantly wrong that I have to believe that even a journalist who has acted as unethically as has Joe Drape would not stoop to that.  So I can only presume that will not be the case.

You may have seen the column on by Gary West, amongst a small minority of racing writers (along with Steven Crist), who called out the PETA video for what it is: "four months of furtive slinking around [yielding] just nine minutes and 29 seconds of video."

Actually, the video shows no abuse or mistreatment of horses. Nobody strikes a horse or hurts a horse. Nothing illegal takes place. For the most part, the video shows horses receiving injections, being scoped and examined. It shows, in other words, rather ordinary treatment and nothing sinister. Only somebody who looks with his preconceptions and not his eyes, somebody who gullibly believes -- or desperately wants to believe -- every word from the voiced-over narrator, could mistake this treatment for mistreatment.
While I agree with West's general sentiment in calling out PETA, he surely glosses over things here as well.  The clip about Nehro is stomach-turning, and I can't even watch it. I would like to hear some further explanation from a vet familiar with his condition.  (Though neither the video nor Drape make any effort to clarify that the colic from which the horse died may or may not have stemmed from his foot condition.)  Nor does West mention the matter of un- or falsely-documented workers being paid less than the minimum wage.  He also doesn't mention the buzzers that are referred to in the video either...but actually neither would I.  There's really not one iota of credible evidence in this tape to support a single actual and current use of them.  Blasi's "maquina" statement regarding jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. is presented without any context and is therefore meaningless.  (And, by the way and not for nothing, what exactly was this woman doing in what appears to be Blasi's living room as he discusses this?)  And two old war horses sitting at a dinner table amongst half-filled glasses of wine exchanging fish stories about the good ol' wild west days?  Seriously, that's supposed to mean something? (And what exactly was a supposed stablehand doing sitting at a dinner table with Wayne Lukas and Gary Stevens?  How exactly did she obtain that kind of access?)

The prevailing sentiment, as articulated in Thoroughbred Daily News by Barry Weisbod, is that this "isn't the time to shoot the messenger."  I disagree.  We've been hearing that for quite some time now, and this industry has allowed itself to be battered by the slanted and distorted reporting by the Times for years.  It takes its toll.  Not only on public image, but on self-image.  Every time Drape opens his mouth, Ray Paulick and others lead us in a frantic retreat to the woodshed for self-flaggelation.  Not only is it unhealthy, it's contrary to human nature.  Weisbod is "mad as hell and he's not gonna take it anymore." But not at the manipulated video and the organization behind it. Chris Kay issued the standard vanilla response.  Would have been a good time for Kay to tout the recent improvements in NYRA's safety record; and perhaps point out that they still have not been reported by the Times.

PETA wants to destroy our sport.  Yeah, they tell us that's not the case, that they could oppose its existence but that they only want to rid it of drugs.  But then they tell people that when it comes to horse racing: don’t attend ‘em, don’t watch ‘em, and don’t bet on ‘em!  Unless they envision a future of racing as an equestrian event, sounds like a death sentence to me.  Now they are depicted in the New York Times as a mainstream organization that has delivered an objective report.  His only nod to their past of extremism is that they have "aggressively assailed corporations for the way they treat animals and has run undercover investigations."

Having said all of that, Weisbod, and others, are of course correct in that "racing cannot continue to simply react to another New York Times article every six months."  Something needs to be done.  However, the kind of changes being called for are not going to happen overnight.  It's easy for an observer to say 'oh yeah, just ban all medications like in other countries.'  But the economies of the business in this country is built on the present culture, and those who depend on it are going to slow changes that they perceive as threatening to their livelihoods.  And should the needed changes result in, as one might suspect, fewer horses making it to the starting gate, jobs will be lost and more unwanted and unneeded horses will be eligible for slaughterhouses.  There needs to be a plan for that as well.  This will all take some time, and nothing will happen until there until there is a single authority to oversee the sport.

While they're at it, that single authority should include an effective PR machine to counter propaganda and lies in the press and by PETA.  They are launching what amounts to a political-type operation, and this sport could use a single authoritative voice to respond in kind where necessary.  One can make changes and lash back at propaganda at the same time.  We've seen necessary alterations made to the Affordable Care Act, but Democrats still blast back as necessary at deceptions coming from right-wing organizations.  If PETA is allowed, with the help of its friends at the Times, to be seen as a credible and mainstream organization, who is going to question them when it decides that the industry isn't moving as fast as it likes, which is inevitable, and decides that horse racing has to go altogether?  Joe Drape?

 - And, an aside, it's been a week now, and we're still waiting for a response from Steve Asmussen, whose lawyer promised that he would "respond factually."  The silence is rather deafening.


Sal Carcia said...

I think this is an excellent and balanced summary of this incident.

Maybe, horseracing leaders don't get it. Or maybe, they get it and don't know how to change the game without the ramifications you speak of.

Weisbord's recommendations were spot on. Now, the question is how can changes like these ever be implememted in a industry that has such a diverse and adversarial structure?

kyle said...

Why did you have to ruin a perfectly good post with the inane ACA boosterism?

El Angelo said...

Alan, I think this is a very balanced and fair take on the entire process. I do want to point out two things though:

1. You, yourself, said you found the Nehro clip "stomach-turning" and that you couldn't watch it.

2. Asmussen's complete silence is indeed deafening.

Now take the perspective of someone who *doesn't* follow the sport as closely as you or I, and simply given them those two facts alone, coupled with the fact that Asmussen trains at the highest level of the sport and was a Hall of Fame nominee a week ago, and is not some fringe guy at a minor track Idaho trying to eke out a living. No matter who's the messenger, or how it's portrayed, it's simply horrible for the sport.

I also want to note Gary West's point that the video shows "horses receiving injections" which he dubs "rather ordinary treatment and nothing sinister." Setting aside whether this is right, it's worth having a debate as to whether this should in fact be ordinary treatment, and that almost none of the general public is going to see it as "ordinary treatment." They see it as unsavory characters sticking needles into oft-injured horses and don't understand why this is necessary. And that's another failure of the industry. Either explain to John Q. Public why it's necessary to give horses needles on a regular basis or simply ban it. They have done neither.

Teresa said...

A deputy sports editor of the Times confirmed to me that Drape and a video producer had watched "many hours" of the footage.

Cohen says in The Atlantic that additional footage will "reportedly" be released, but doesn't give a source. Wonder who it is.

ballyfager said...

I would never want to be on the same side of any issue as PETA or the NY Times. Disgusting people.

Anonymous said...

I believe the girl was in Blasi's living room because SUPPOSEDLY she pretended to be his girlfriend in order to obtain access - and if true, would just make the whole "sting" even more despicable.

I don't believe that colic would ever be caused by a foot ailment. And for the record, while Nehro's foot problems were likely bad enough to keep him out of the entry box (which he was, for the better part of two years), they were probably not all that different from other horses with similar issues, other than Nehro being far more "high profile".

Alan Mann said...

Sorry Kyle, LOL. :-)

Alan Mann said...

>>I don't believe that colic would ever be caused by a foot ailment.

I was just wondering if something that the foot caused the horse to do - such as lie down too much - could have indirectly led him to develop colic. I obviously have no clue...

Figless said...

Or the pain medications given to him, but pure speculation, probably unrelated.

I find it hard to believe PETA sent in only one investigator, so its possible there is more damning evidence, perhaps on Lukas because, like you ask, how else is he in the video?

As for a defense, the best defense in a case like this is the "one bad egg" defense, cant indict an entire industry based on one barn, no more than you can indict every college athletic program because of one NCAA violation or every football player because of one steroid overage every bike racer because of Lance Armstrong, oh never mind......

Good news is all of them seem to survive the bad publicity.

Figless said...

As for Assmussen, if I were him I would keep quiet until I saw all the evidence, perhaps its damning but perhaps just following legal advice.

Steve in NC said...

Hold up Alan.

Yes, PETA aims to destroy the sport but the ones actually destroying it are those who run the sport now and refuse to clean it up.

El Angelo is right. It speaks volumes that excerpts of the everyday stuff of backstretch operations - with nothing illegal shown - are hard for a racing data professional like you, and hard for a 4-decade racetracker like me to watch.

The everyday is a routine of powerful and unneeded drugs for healthy horses and more drugs when issues develop. Patching and deadening the pain of hurting horses rather than resting them. Purses for claiming races that disincentivize (is that a word?) the long-term health of the horse. And continual experiments with new drugs to get another edge, the safety of horses or riders be damned.

As a handicapper, I do avoid certain tracks & trainers even on the weekends because the form ain't true. Weekday cards anywhere are pretty hard to justify looking at. That sucks and it's long past time to change it.

It's also time to change the lack of adequate insurance for jocks, the low pay and bad conditions for grooms.

The pressure created by the PETA video gives people the opportunity to force positive changes in the sport on many fronts.

Very few people see PETA as a mainstream organization. Stop worrying about them and whether anyone is going to put them or Joe Drape in charge of deciding racing's rules. That's silly.

I'm worried that the people who have allowed the sport to degenerate will be allowed to leave things as they are. The last thing they need is PR help making excuses.

When that waiter's cellphone video showed America the real Romney, it changed the entire campaign. Was it the entirety of Romney? Was it ethically obtained? Wasn't it released at a strategic moment?

This video doesn't show us the totality of Blasi or Asmussen, never mind the entirety of America's backstretch. But I think we did get a valuable glimpse of what one very prominent stable is like when it feels it is among friends.

And the issue for America wasn't whether the waiter did the right thing, but the character and views of the candidate. And the issue for people who love racing isn't PETA, but what kind of sport we have and what kind of sport we want to have.

Anonymous said...

Steve Asmussen may be a lot of things, but no horseplayer who pays any attention whatsoever has ever considered him a "juice" trainer. His numbers off claims, or trainer switches, completely fail to back up any assertions that he is any kind of move up trainer.

This is neither a defense or attack on him, just the facts, something sorely missing among most discussion of this situation ( save the words of people like Alan ).

He was low hanging fruit. But, he's also not the kind of trainer that should be being investigated if we really want to clean up this game.

Figless said...

There are a lot of angles to this story, and everyone's comments are interesting, but I just want to point out that owners need to share the blame.

In this case, Zayat is trying to distance himself but he, and or/ his racing manager, HAD to know that Nehro, a horse that had been VERY good to him, had foot issues that any logical person could see required time or retirement.

Yet he allowed his trainer to try and push him through the pain.

And most owners continually bury their heads in the sand when a trainer calls and says we can do this or do that. What owner opts for field rest when given an option? Few, if any.

Figless said...

Whatever happened to the Dubai World Cup? Didn't they used to run it around this time of year?