Pony Up the Dope

Last week in the paper version of Unfair Park, we wrote about Steve Asmussen, who is either the greatest horse trainer in America or one of the sport’s biggest cheaters. Personally, I found Lone Star Park's prodigal son to be a pretty likable dude; others say he’s a jerk. What can’t be disputed is that Asmussen has 22 drug violations on his record, five of which are pretty serious. That may sound like a big deal, and maybe it is, but consider this: Asmussen’s horses go to the test barn about 800 times a year (race winners and one randomly selected horse are tested after every race).

There is no doubt, however, that drugs are a problem in horse racing, and over the years trainers have been rumored to use some pretty weird stuff to give their horses an advantage. The use of oceanic cone snail venom, a potent painkiller, has been called a “classic rumor that won’t die.”

Well, maybe it’s not a rumor after all. Last week, the Daily Racing Form, the Bible of the horse racing, reported that during a June 22 raid Kentucky stewards found cobra venom in one of trainer Patrick Biancone’s Keeneland barns:

The cobra venom, which is barred by state regulation from racetrack grounds, was in crystalline form and was found in a refrigerator in one of the tack rooms used for the storage of supplies, said the source, adding the substance was in a small container labeled "Toxin." Snake venom has been known to be injected to deaden or "block" a horse's joint or nerve, and in a case settled last week in Saratoga County, N.Y., two Standardbred horsemen pled guilty of doing just that before a race last October at Saratoga Raceway.

The excellent horse racing blog Curb My Enthusiasm weighs in:

“Reading this was a real kick in the gut for me. Injecting cobra venom into a horse's joint? What in the world is going on here? Is it too much to ask that you not inject a deadly poison into an animal? Currently there is no effective method to test for cobra venom. Where in the hell do you even get Cobra venom? www.cobravenom.com perhaps?

I'm disgusted that anyone would do this to a horse, and this might quite possibly taint the feelings I had about the ability of any of Biancone's horses, not to mention his abilities as a trainer. For now, I want to withhold judgement because I'm a fan and because the trainer deserves due process -- but don't see how this can turn out anyway but bad.”

Horse racing aficionados tend to look the other way with this kind of stuff, fearing that any negative publicity will hurt a sport that’s already struggling. The truth is, horse racing has a rabid fan base, as anyone who has been out to Lone Star Park recently would know.

On July 3 and 4, for example, more than 41,000 fans turned out at the Grand Prairie track, despite rain and the constant threat of thunderstorms. And that’s the way it’s been the entire spring season -- lots of rain and lots of fans. And at this year’s Preakness, which Asmussen won, there was a record turnout.

So horse racing is alive and well, despite popular misconceptions, but as KTCK-AM (1310, The Ticket) late-morning-show host Norm Hitzges, a handicapper at Lone Star Park, told us for last week’s story, it won’t stay that way if these sorts of doping allegations continue to haunt the sport: “Horse racing survives on the confidence of the person walking through the door placing the wager," he says, "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.” --Jesse Hyde


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