Dark Horse

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

The suspension made headlines here and there but hardly made a splash beyond the horse racing world. Even among fairly knowledgeable race fans, Asmussen's rap as a cheater was mostly unknown.

Then he won the Preakness. He wasn't just a trainer who won a lot of no-name races any more. He had just won a classic. "I'll tell you what I said to my wife when he won," said a nationally known vet who asked not to be identified. "I said, 'Goddammit, a known cheater just won the Preakness.'" Like Barry Bonds chasing Hank Aaron's hallowed home run record, Asmussen had tainted one of the sport's most storied events.

Shortly after the Derby, HBO's Real Sports ran a segment on doping, which it called horse racing's dirty little secret. The segment focused heavily on Asmussen. At one point, a reporter asked him if he knew how many drug positives he had on his record.

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.

"No," Asmussen answered sharply.

"You don't know?"

"No."

The reporter asked Asmussen if he could explain how one of his horses had tested positive for 750 times the legal limit of a drug banned on race days.

Asmussen rolled his eyes, which were flashing with anger.

"How do you explain that?"

"Well, I don't explain that," he said, his voice cracking. "Like I said, they proved that it was in the horse. You think that there would be the possibility that somebody would like to see me get in trouble for the success that I've had?"

He seemed to be suggesting that someone had set him up.

"Are you suggesting...?"

Asmussen cut him off.

"No. No, I'm not. I'm responsible. But you're suggesting that I knowingly gave, what, 750 times the limit of a drug that is so easily detectable. I mean...I'm not that ignorant."

The minute the interview was over he called Darren Rogers, the PR man at Lone Star Park, and said: "They got me."

Asmussen was right. In the interview, he comes across as defensive and argumentative. It also seems highly unlikely that Asmussen, who is known for having a Rain Man-like memory, didn't know how many positives he had on his record.

For many viewers, it was the first time they had ever even heard of Steve Asmussen. In the following days, both The Washington Postand The New York Timesdid similar stories. Like it or not, Asmussen had become the poster boy for horse racing's drug problem.


You could say it began in 1968, when a horse named Dancer's Image won the Kentucky Derby while on phenylbutazone, a painkiller. The horse was later disqualified. Two years later, Kentucky legalized Lasix, an anti-bleeding medication that stops hemorrhaging in the lungs, and over the next 30 years there was a steady increase in the amount of drugs horses were given to withstand the rigors of modern racing. Today, drugs are an accepted part of Thoroughbred racing. In this year's Derby, all 20 horses ran on Lasix.

Some say drugs are ruining the game. Because horses now depend on drugs to race, they pass their infirmities on to their offspring, and as a result they are more fragile than they were three decades ago. Horses today enter half as many races as they did in the 1970s and 1980s, and yet they are breaking down more.

These breakdowns are often horrifying to behold, and they have done irreparable harm to the game's image (consider Barbaro). One reason horses are breaking down more, experts say, is that a drugged-up horse will run through pain.

On the recent Real Sports program that focused on Asmussen, a vet with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation said he had recently treated a horse that had been forced to run on a broken pelvis. Stories like these, he said, are a dime a dozen.

"You'll take a horse that as it comes off the track it's shiny, it's fit, it looks like an athlete, and then as the drugs wear off they start to walk around like an 80-year-old man," said the vet.

So far, the horse racing industry has done little to crack down on violators. As HBO noted, the nation's top trainers are a "who's who of dopers." In this year's Kentucky Derby, nearly half the field was trained by men with doping violations in the past year. Dallas native Todd Pletcher, who entered a record five horses and is the nation's leading trainer three years running, began the year on suspension in New York. Scott Lake, who led the nation in wins last year, had 24 positives on his record and five suspensions. Two of his horses have tested positive for traces of cocaine.

"I think that the use of illegal drugs is so widespread and so out of control that these are not assorted brush fires that have to be put out. This is like a raging forest fire," Washington Post turf writer Andy Beyer told National Public Radio last year. Beyer said there's a lack of will within the industry to do anything substantive about it. "All racetracks are very dependent on their trainers and particularly their big trainers to put on the show. In horse racing, there's enough image problems to begin with that no racetrack wants a scandal making, you know, front-page headlines...You almost never see high-profile trainers get the book thrown at them."

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