Dark Horse

Is Steve Asmussen the greatest racehorse trainer in America, or is he a cheater?

"We're about to find out," he said lamely.

Up on a grassy knoll, facing the grandstands of Pimlico, a man dressed in white pants, a red coat and a black hat blew a bugle call as the horses stepped onto the track. Asmussen stood alone on the track apron; his family watched from the stands. His heart was beating through his chest. For the first time in his career, he had a horse with a real chance to win a classic.

When it was over, they would say it was one of the greatest Preaknesses ever. At the wire, after making a final surge, Curlin had overtaken Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense by the smallest of margins. In the photo finish, it was Curlin by a head.

Asmussen grew up around horses and longed to be a jockey like his dad and brother.
Asmussen grew up around horses and longed to be a jockey like his dad and brother.
For an hour straight on Memorial Day, Steve Asmussen signed autographs for adoring fans at Lone Star Park. The trainer remains based at Lone Star, even though he could go to a bigger track.
Mark Graham
For an hour straight on Memorial Day, Steve Asmussen signed autographs for adoring fans at Lone Star Park. The trainer remains based at Lone Star, even though he could go to a bigger track.

For Asmussen it was the greatest moment of his career, if not his life. The next morning, while everyone else was sleeping, he and his father went to breakfast. It was, Asmussen says, the "best conversation we've ever had." Months later, he would speak of it reverently, his voice thick with emotion. Finally, everything the family had worked for had been achieved.

The win should've validated his career. But that's not how it played out in the media. Immediately after the race, columnists and bloggers marveled at the horse but wondered how they could root for it with such an unsavory cast of characters behind it. The original owners, a pair of Kentucky lawyers who still owned a 20 percent share, had been found guilty of defrauding clients following a successful class-action lawsuit over the diet drug fen-phen.

The other owners of the horse were viewed as Johnny-come-latelies who'd simply bought their way into the winner's circle. And then there was Asmussen, the so-called super-trainer who won at an astonishing rate at small tracks. Something about him stunk.

There had always been whispers about Steve Asmussen, but nobody had really paid attention. The 22 drug positives on his record, the suspensions in Louisiana and Texas and New Mexico—these things were all part of the public record, but they weren't widely known.

A year before the Preakness, Asmussen had been hit with one of the stiffest doping penalties in recent memory by the Louisiana Racing Commission, which determined that a horse in his care had run on a banned substance called mepivacaine. If used improperly, the drug, which is a nerve blocker, can allow a horse to run on a damaged leg. In this case, the racing commission determined that Asmussen's horse had been given 750 times the legal limit of the drug. The horse had pulled up badly during the race and labored to finish.

At a hearing to discuss the suspension, Asmussen said he had no idea how the drug ended up in the horse's system. He had ordered a cortisone shot for the horse's knee just seven days before the race, but on race day, the horse had appeared to be fine. It is purely speculation, but entirely possible considering the horse's history, that it was given mepivacaine to allow it to run on a bad knee. If this is true, it put everyone in the race in serious danger. If the horse's knee were to blow out, any horse near it would be likely to trip and fall, setting off a chain reaction that could prove disastrous and even fatal to any number of horses and riders.

He did admit that he had ordered two other drugs that were illegal on race day—one to increase endurance and another to reduce bleeding in the lungs. The horse had also been given Lasix, a legal anti-bleeding medication that most horses run on. Perhaps the vets had made a mistake, injecting mepivacaine when they meant to administer another drug.

The vets said this would be impossible. Mepivacaine was injected directly into the joint. The other illegal drugs, which they insisted they hadn't given, were shot into the jugular. If mepivacaine were injected into the jugular it would bring a horse to its knees.

A groom testified that he had left the horse alone for eight to nine minutes, leaving the door open for sabotage. Considering that there is no security or video cameras at Evangeline Downs, and the total domination Asmussen has had there, sabotage is a possibility, says Steven Barker, the lab director on the case.

It wasn't the first time Asmussen had used this defense to explain a drug positive. In 1999 and 2001 he had been before the very same commission for doping violations, one involving a drug called ketorolac, an anti-inflammatory, and another for clenbuterol, which clears breathing passages. In 2004, he was brought before the Texas Racing Commission for another clenbuterol positive, for which he was fined $20,000 and suspended 15 days.

That same year, he had three other positives, in Louisiana, New Mexico and Texas for a sedative called acepromazine. Even as he stood before the Louisiana Racing Commission, he was facing a six-month suspension in New Mexico for another acepromazine positive.

Despite testimony from the chair of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, who said Asmussen had an impeccable reputation as a trainer who did things "on the up and up," and that a mistake like this could only be the result of an accident, which was understandable considering the thousands of races Asmussen ran every year, the Louisiana Racing Commission gave him the maximum suspension. For six months, he would be banned from every track in America.

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