Written by: Heather Clemenceau
It used to be that phenylbutazone was what got a horse disqualified from a race. Dancer’s Image became the only winner in the Kentucky Derby’s 134-year history to be disqualified for using a banned substance, when bute was found in his urine sample after the race in 1968. Two years after Secretariat’s recordbreaking US Triple Crown took the sport to a new level of popularity, the breakdown and death of Ruffian brought on a new era of safety concerns.
Analysis of horse carcasses submitted to the CHRB Postmortem Program revealed that 40.9% of all fatal injuries occurred during racing and training in 3-4 year old racehorses. Injuries, unlike accidents, do not happen by chance. The science of injury prevention has demonstrated that injuries and the events leading up to injuries are not random. Like disease, they tend to follow a general pattern. Studying these patterns has made it possible to learn to predict and prevent injuries from occurring, Yet this type of knowledge is ignored when pitted against the profit incentive of racing.
As a result, many fallen jockeys have found that their mounts eventually became wheelchairs after they were paralysed in falls by their horses or horses they were trailing who should have been scratched from races. In 1990, apprentice jockey Benny Narvaez was paralyzed from the chest down after his horse threw him while jumping over another horse who had broken down directly in front of him during a race at Tampa Bay Downs. A jury found that Tampa Bay Downs was responsible for Narvaez’s injury because the track veterinarian failed to perform an adequate pre-race examination on the horse he was trailing. That horse’s pre-existing conditions had been cloaked by drugs a few days before the race.
So the recent PeTA expose of trainers Steve Asmussen and Scott Blasi in the New York Times wasn’t all that surprising, except in how quickly it went viral and how many racing fans jumped into the fray to excoriate PeTA. This wasn’t just about anyone – these guys who are accused are at the top. Asmussen has built one of horse racing’s largest operations. He ranks second in career victories, with more than 6,700; has earned more than $214 million in purses. But now they are accused of subjecting their horses to cruel and injurious treatments, administering drugs to them for nontherapeutic purposes, and having one of their jockeys use an electrical device to shock horses into running faster. Asmussen and Blasi are also accused of employing undocumented workers, requiring them to use false names on Internal Revenue Service forms, producing false identification documents, according to the complaints filed with state and federal agencies. Asmussen also paid the PeTA investigator $5.95 an hour — less than minimum wage — and did not pay proper overtime wages, according to complaints filed with the labour departments of Kentucky and New York. In 2012 the Asmussen Horse Center dumped 10 of their bred mares at one of the biggest kill buyer auctions in Texas, so they hardly sound like an upstanding group of people.
Nehro, the horse in the surveillance video, was acknowledged to be in pain and needed to be retired, yet still he continued to train. On the morning of last year’s Kentucky Derby, Nehro got sick on the backside of Churchill Downs and later died from colic in a van on the way to the hospital. In all likelihood, he may have had ulcers from excess medication with bute, which may have contributed to his colic. Blasi and the farrier spent so much time conspiring in that barn that they were unaware everything they said and did was being recorded by an investigator who used a hidden camera to record terrible mistreatment. Ultimately, PeTA filed 10 complaints with the state and federal authorities.
I’m surprised at the vitriol hurled against PeTA for this undercover work. Lots of defensiveness and doubling-down, shoot-the-messenger type comments on the various message boards, including that of the New York Times. Lots of debate also as to whether the farrier was referring to Nehro not having a pulse in either his legs or his feet being as good thing or not. A horse’s foot is highly vascularized – circulation is needed to help them function and repair damage. A healthy pulse in either foot or leg is faint, but discernible, especially to an experienced vet. In the context of the video, Blasi and the farrier are complaining about Nehro’s foot being a “nub” with an enormous painful hole in the frog and hoof walls held together by glue. A horse with such extensive hoof damage should have an strong bounding pulse due to inflammation. The lack of pulse despite such physical evidence of damage suggests heavy duty dosages of painkillers that are numbing both blood flow and pain responses to the feet. It sure seems medically unlikely that a horse could have such holes in the frog and hoof wall and simultaneously have no pulse unless drugs are being used to mask the pain.
While PeTA has always had some serious credibility issues for me, I’ve always thought that their investigative work was first-rate. Problematic for me is that they’ve long been accused of objectifying women for their cause. Between a banned Super Bowl ad claiming that vegetarians have better sex and their “Save the Whales, Lose the Blubber” campaign, it often felt to me as if PeTA was promoting animal rights at the cost of the women’s movement – issues that are both paramount for me. A quick browse through their print campaigns clearly shows that while women are often depicted naked, with few exceptions, men are depicted clothed. The problem is that, after looking at half-naked celebrities, few people want to sign a petition or take action. And aggressive and often misguided attempts by various Huffington Post authors to discredit PeTA have had some impact – I’m seeing the oft-repeated mantra of their articles perpetuated in other social media channels. These so-called journalists are confusing the provision of a quick and painless end to what would otherwise be a miserable life, with a gleefully murderous objective. PeTA is not killing animals for amusement or for profit.
Another huge gaffe for PeTA caused intense frustration amongst horse people who were lobbying furiously against horse slaughter in the US in 2013, when they misguidedly proclaimed that slaughter should return to the US as it was the “lesser of two evils” – the other evil being long transport to slaughter in Canada or Mexico. Imagine how shocked horse advocates were to hear pro-Ag and pro-slaughter mouthpieces quoting PeTA back to us! Exasperatingly, the PeTA statement in favour of a return to horse slaughter was one of the main reasons the Oklahoma horse slaughter law passed. The legislators used that statement as a banner. Yet PeTA is an anti-slaughter group and they promote the passage of the S.A.F.E. Act.
I’ve included some of their print campaigns against racing in this blog post. I think these ones are a lot more thought provoking than the ads featuring naked celebs. But it was a few undercover campaigns that really put them on the map. Whatever you think of them, you’d probably have to acknowledge that they have really demonstrated their ability to create dialogue about things that many people hold sacred, such as circuses and animal labs. Over the past 30 years, PeTA has aggressively assailed corporations for the way they treat animals. But the Asmussen/Blasi investigation was PETA’s first significant step into advocacy in the horse racing world.
The Silver Spring Monkey Investigation
One of PeTA’s founders, a student named Alex Pacheco, set out to gain some experience in a laboratory and began working undercover at the Institute for Behavioral Research. IBR was a federally funded laboratory in Silver Spring, Maryland, run by psychologist and animal experimenter Edward Taub, a man with no medical training. There, Pacheco found 17 monkeys living in tiny wire cages that were caked with years of accumulated feces.
“The monkeys were subjected to debilitating surgeries in which their spinal nerves were severed, rendering one or more of their limbs useless. Through the use of electric shock, food deprivation, and other methods, the monkeys were forced to try to regain the use of their impaired limbs or go without food. In one experiment, monkeys were kept immobile in a dark chamber made out of a converted refrigerator and then repeatedly shocked until they finally used their disabled arm. The inside of the refrigerator was covered with blood. In another experiment, monkeys were strapped into a crude restraint chair—their waist, ankles, wrists, and neck held in place with packing tape—and pliers were latched as tightly as possible onto their skin, including onto their testicles.”
The trauma of the monkeys’ imprisonment and treatment was so severe that many of them had ripped at their own flesh, and they had lost many of their fingers from catching them in the rusted, jagged cage bars. Workers often neglected to feed the monkeys, and the animals would desperately pick through the waste beneath their cages to find something to eat.
PeTA gathered meticulous log notes detailing what was happening inside IBR and secretly photographed the horrible living conditions. Then, after lining up expert witnesses and showing them around the laboratory at night, PeTA took the evidence to the police—and an intense, decade-long battle for custody of the monkeys ensued. Their investigation led to the nation’s first arrest and criminal conviction of an animal experimenter for cruelty to animals, the first confiscation of abused animals from a laboratory.
The Japanese Horse Slaughter Investigation
As many as 20,000 horses are slaughtered each year in Japan, partly because of overbreeding of thoroughbreds in the U.S., where racehorses are exploited as disposable commodities.
PeTA’s 2009 horse slaughter investigation took place inside Japan’s largest horse slaughterhouse in Kumamoto. Horsemeat from Claude Bouvry’s plant also makes its way to Kumamoto. Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand was sold to a Japanese breeder and a few years later, when they were done with him, he was unceremoniously slaughtered. PeTA also discovered that Derby and Preakness winners Charismatic and War Emblem are at breeding farms in Japan right now. With their useful breeding days winding down, they are likely to share the fate of Ferdinand. For all I know, War Emblem may in fact already be dead, since he was something of a failure as a stud and he would now be 15 years old.
Articles about animal abuse always bring out both the best and the worst of internet posters. In this scenario, racing fans were quick to come up with some flimsy reason why the investigation is bogus, or perpetually ask why we care more for animals than people, make protestations about edited video and the need to provide context, complaints about PeTA’s methods, and any number of other defensive reactions that illuminate how little we want to actually examine our role in the ongoing suffering of animals.
The lawyer for Asmussen and Blasi is apparently shocked that someone would go undercover to actually expose the relentless abuse, avarice and greed they visited on these horses. Ironically, Blasi and Asmussen are probably going to see the greatest censure visited on them as a result of the identity falsification charges; after 9/11, this is probably going to be taken pretty seriously – probably more so than the abuse charges. So, an investigation about mistreatment of horses also involved the mistreatment of the human beings who took care of the horses. And If a horse needs electric shock to run faster, then it is no longer the “sport of kings,” but a matter of chaos, controlled by whoever has the biggest cattle prod.
Northern Dancer won the American Eclipse Award as Three-Year Old Male Champion of 1964 and the Sovereign Award for Horse of the Year. In 1965, he became the first horse to ever be voted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, an honour he held for thirty-one years and now shares with Canadian Equestrian Champion Big Ben. On its formation, he was part of the first group of inductees into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1976. In 1977, Northern Dancer won three world sires’ premiership titles being for the number of international stakes winners, international stakes wins and progeny stake earnings. He was retired from stud in 1987 at the age of 26. He died in 1990 and is buried at Windfields Farm in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. Windfields Farm has subsequently been abandoned, and Northern Dancer’s burial site is not publicly accessible. This is the life-sized bronze statue of him outside Woodbine Race Track in northwest Toronto. While tenderness in a tendon ended his career, he belongs to an “old-school” period when horses weren’t run on thyroxine or frog juice. He did not continue to race on drugs for years with broken-down legs or feet. Nor was he sent to slaughter after his breeding days were over.