Dark Horse

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

That's what made Asmussen's suspension unique. For the first time, a big-name trainer was hit with a penalty that hurt. Or did it? Asmussen's assistant trainer picked up right where he left off, and not a single horse in their barn missed a race.

"Your cash flow keeps coming in, everything's running status quo, well, who cares, what's the big deal about that?" says Jenine Sahadi, a California trainer who won a Breeders' Cup race in 1996. "They basically amount to a slap on the wrist."

Sahadi is one of the few trainers who is willing to speak out on the issue, and she has been blasted for doing so. Insiders at Lone Star Park use terms like "crazy" and "out there" to describe her. Sahadi has gone so far as to tape her stable doors shut every night to keep someone from sabotaging her horses.

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.

She says she doesn't know Asmussen or have an opinion on his reputation. But she says this new breed of super-trainer is changing the game.

"What I'm seeing now I didn't see 15 years ago," she says. "It used to be, if you could win at 18 to 20 percent on the year, you were hitting a home run. You hit at 20 percent now, you're having a shit year, my friend.

"We have super-trainers now who win at 40 percent, they are bi-coastal, their operations are so big they control the entry box, they control the jockeys, they control everything about racing."

Others say the drug problem in horse racing has been greatly exaggerated. In Texas, it's been more than two years since any trainer had a Class 1 drug violation.

"There's so much misunderstanding out there, and there's so many people who have this wrong impression of horse racing and drugs," says Gary West, who covers horse racing for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Certainly everybody who trains horses in horse racing uses drugs, just as any athlete uses drugs therapeutically, for medicinal purposes. I suspect that on any given Sunday no player in the NFL could pass the same test these racehorses pass every day."

Most everyone in the business agrees that some changes are in order. For starters, rules and penalties should be uniform from state to state. As it is, what's legal on race day in one state might be illegal in another. In Texas, for example, any unlabeled medication is a violation, which as far as Asmussen knows, isn't a rule anywhere else. The suspensions also vary. Asmussen got six months for a mepivacaine violation, when Todd Pletcher got 45 days for the same drug.

"What horse racing needs is a national commissioner," says KTCK-1310 AM host Norm Hitzges, a handicapper at Lone Star Park. "Horse racing survives on the confidence of the person walking through the door placing the wager, and if horse racing ever gets to the point where the suspicion of the everyday wagerer gets too great, it will suffer financially. It will."

The vast majority of trainers, Sahadi says, are clean. The problem is the biggest names in the sport are the ones racking up the positives.

"Look, I love this game and don't want to hurt it," she says. "The only reason I'm doing this is to raise awareness. What a human being does to himself has nothing to do with me. If a football player wants to use illegal drugs, I have no control over that kind of situation. But a horse has no voice."

It's a Friday night at Lone Star Park, hot and muggy. It's been several weeks since Steve Asmussen was last here, the day they presented him with a cake and wished him best of luck at the Belmont.

Curlin lost in the Belmont by a mere 6 inches in another thrilling finish. But still they are saying he could be Horse of the Year, depending on how he does in the Breeders' Cup, and it still amazes Asmussen that he's even part of that conversation.

Tonight, he's sitting alone in the courtyard near the paddock, as the horses are saddled for the next race. From a distance, he looks like a bettor trying to figure out a 10-cent superfecta. A few people who pass notice him. "Is that Steve Asmussen?" they whisper. But mostly, he goes unnoticed.

A month, maybe more, has passed since his name and the word "doping" were linked in newspaper stories across the country. Even ESPN brought it up, that question he hates. But this time, he was ready. He wasn't defensive. He was direct and firm: I didn't put it in her, and I don't know how it got in her. Simple as that. Take it or leave it.

It's ridiculous, really, to suggest it was anything else. Considering how many starts he has in a year (about 2,000) and how often he goes to the test barn (at least 800 times a year), 22 violations over two decades is a fraction too small to register. But he has no complaints. Frankly, the suspension was good for him. It forced him to step away from the game and take a look at his life. It was strange, to be at home every day, and not on the road, traveling to some track in Kentucky or Chicago or New York. He wondered how his children would react, how his wife would react, to seeing him at home every day. "That's extremely shallow to say, but when you're always doing it you want to make sure they feel the same way about you when you're not doing it. If I'm working at the 7-11 on the corner, which is what my education called for, would they treat me the same?"

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