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TrackNotes: Junkies In Narcissistic Denial

Just when you feel a little enthusiasm for horse racing again, the game clotheslines you right back into the shit hole.

We're going to hell, and if you stick around, we can drag you right down with us.

Roger Goodell's NFL discipline policies and decrees may be upside down, but at least they exist.

Now think about the dark side of horse racing: pain killers, steroids, thyroid medications, muscle relaxants, batteries (hand-held shock devices), mysteriously lackadaisical efforts by jockeys, poor track maintenance, tote fraud, past posting, corrupt stewardship and the lost integrity of the race.

Why would anyone involved in horse racing choose to ever do the right thing, take the high road, use common sense, do right by the horses, when they know damn well that they're never going to be truly penalized for anything? It's a destructive, tornadic confluence of: Everybody does it. We have to win. Therefore, we have to do it. We do it because we can. Nobody said we couldn't do it.

Steve Asmussen knows this. He's the second-winningest trainer in racing history, by dint of sheer volume, having some of the best horses of the young millennium (Curlin, Rachel Alexandra and, now, the sensational filly Untapable), and the use of various chemical substances.

So it's no surprise that he reinstated to his barn top assistant Scott Blasi, the focal point of a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) firestorm ignited this spring by the release of a nine-minute video purportedly exposing Blasi's corrupt ways.

Highlighted by lamentations about the conditions of several horses and then profane exhortations about how some of the horses are worthless for racing, Blasi also shed some light in the video on the accomplished Nehro, admitting that the horse ran and trained when it should not have because of very poor feet and hooves. Nehro, he acknowledges, should have been retired before he was. He also insinuates that owner Ahmed Zayat knew of Nehro's condition and kept him in training for the money.

Nearly immediately after PETA's salvo went public, Asmussen fired Blasi. Zayat quickly pulled all of his horses from Asmussen's barn, claiming he knew nothing of Nehro's problems or Asmussen's methods. Other owners have been supportive. You see, Asmussen wins races.

Nits have been picked ever since, but no specific charges or complaints have been brought against Asmussen or Blasi and no disciplinary actions have been taken. As Beyer Speed Figure inventor and Washington Post columnist Andrew Beyer writes, racing as a sport, rudderless without national, or any, leadership of any kind, fails to see the cancerous problems it has or the overall reforms it needs.

"It is wrong to characterize Asmussen as a bad apple," Beyer wrote. "It is unfair to single him out for stigmatization. Through the industry, the indiscriminate use of drugs is business as usual."

Can't Asmussen just say "Scotty, if you feel that way, maybe you shouldn't be training horses." Instead, Blasi received less than even proverbially getting his mouth washed out with soap.

"Asmussen said Tuesday he fired Blasi at the time due to the 'unacceptable language' he used in the video," the Daily Racing Form reported. That's Asmussen's only idea of a fireable offense? Cussin'?

According to the Racing Form, "Asmussen said he chose this time to bring Blasi back because he needs his other assistant, Darren Fleming, to take horses to West Virginia (West Virginia Derby Day at Mountaineer) for races this weekend, and 'I need to be a little more mobile,' said Asmussen, who has divisions at tracks around the country."

So for Asmussen and his empire, it's about the logistics, not the horses or the ethics.

It's absolutely gut-punch disheartening and simply outrageous that racing has been and still is incapable of using yet another incident as an opportunity to take a good long look at itself and at least begin some sort of dialogue on its myriad of problems. The current conscience of racing allows these practices to continue, yet it doesn't even have the brains within itself to say "Hey guys, this looks bad." PETA's devious methods and apocalyptic contexts are not to be applauded, but they did point out one problem in racing that does exist: The overuse of pharmaceuticals and questionable methods in the treatment of these horses.

Does racing understand it's being mired in this cesspool of its own making? Junkies in narcissistic denial, it gets by in dissipating its effluent through the many tracks and state racing boards and horsemen's associations around the country. The sewage percolates through all of these entities, no cleansing to be had anywhere. Racing is not even astute enough to create its own version of the Ray Rice Pink Shoes of October brand of NFL hypocrisy. Racing can't unite on anything, even cynicism.

Nehro, foaled February 25, 2008, the son of the great Mineshaft out of the Afleet mare The Administrator, and descended three generations from Seattle Slew and four from Secretariat, died on May 6, 2013, only two days after first showing symptoms of colic.

Masochistic Game
And then, there's this.

Seems Masochistic, a 4-year-old California-bred trained by A. C. Avila and ridden by Omar Berrio, was forced by his human "caretakers" to tank a maiden race at Santa Anita on March 15th.

"Fourth choice in the betting at 8-1 that day, Berrio sat like a statue on the horse for nearly the entire six furlongs, weaving back and forth behind horses, then diving to the rail in the stretch," Ray Paulick of The Paulick Report reports. "The ride was so lethargic the jockey was called in the next morning for a video review with the stewards."

Testing was performed.

"Three weeks later, blood and urine samples came back positive for the tranquilizer Acepromazine, a Class 3 drug under California Horse Racing Board rules. A complaint filed by the stewards said a search of Avila's barn uncovered 'medication bottles with blank veterinarian prescription labels attached or no prescription labels at all.'" The tranquilizer was at 40 times the allowable level in the bloodstream.

So while Berrio did his part in fixing the race, he probably also saved the horse from potential disaster, as a let-out horse running on a tranquilizer has to be dangerous to himself, the other horses and all the jockeys. Avila's alibi? "Masochistic is a difficult horse to ride and the intention was for Berrio to preserve his mount to the stretch before asking for an effort," Avila told the Daily Racing Form.

But wait, there's more.

Fast forward to Saturday, May 3rd. Churchill Downs. Ring a bell? Kentucky Derby Day!

Masochistic went off in the third, another maiden race. Morning line 4-1, he dove in the odds and finally bobbed up to 2-1, paying $6.20 to win - by 14 lengths! The bettors were basically on to him. His workouts before the race were excellent.

The Racing Form's national handicapper also seemed on to the scam.

"There has always been talk of an annual tradition, if you will, of a special put-over job at Churchill around Derby time," Mike Watchmaker wrote in his post-Derby Day notes. It was probably true years ago, but in recent times, not so much. Well, you didn't have to be a rocket scientist to see that in the third race, Masochistic was a super-duper good thing flashback from the old days. This second-time starter from a low-profile barn shipped in from Santa Anita, where he had a passive (to be diplomatic) ride when fifth under the wire in his only start. Masochistic was bet long and strong, and made $6.20 [larger than a normal 2-1 payout because of the big Derby Day pools - TC] look like a gift after he won by 14 easy lengths."

Time travel to July 31st.

David Frankham and Brian Carmody had their horse, Smogcutter, entered in the first at Del Mar. They had announced earlier in the week that they would not enter the paddock for saddling if Masochistic, also entered, was there. From a practical standpoint, Del Mar had better announce loud and clear when Smogcutter resigns the race and why before they leave the paddock.

Frankham and Carmody said in a statement that they "Find it hard to ignore the fixing of odds while pulling off a huge betting coup at the public's expense, on a (Kentucky Derby) day when pari-mutuel pools are large enough to mask substantial wagers." Their contention is that Avila is more interested in betting than trying to win every race squarely.

I'm getting weary now.

Why are Avila and Masochistic's owners, Los Pollos Hermanos Racing/Santa Ines Stable, still being allowed to ply their trade? (Berrio is currently out of racing after suffering a stroke May 9th.) With that much narcotics pumped into him, why is Masochistic being allowed to run, both for his own good and as a penalty to the owners? Why hasn't the CHRB - Bo Derek is a member - completed its "investigation?" Can't the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club seek to keep these connections out until CHRB rules? How could any horseplayer bet on any race Masochistic runs in?

As it was, Smogcutter scratched (by stewards or owners?) at least an hour before first post. Masochistic went off at a prohibitive 2-5 (over the 5-1 Place horse), got his feet under him, had the lead two strides out and never looked back, winning by three in a very easy 6-1/2 furlongs. He paid $2.80 to win and the $1 exacta paid $4.40.

Cat Man Do
It's good to see that trainer Wayne Catalano is reportedly making progress in his battle with pneumonia brought on by the flu.

The Cat Man was hospitalized in Hoffman Estates on July 24th and put into an induced coma. His daughter Shelbi Hill, wife of jockey Channing Hill, reported that Catalano is/was quite ill. During Sunday's Haskell Invitational, NBC's Donna Brothers provided an update that said Catalano was improving slowly, but steadily.

As this railbird was just learning the game, Catalano was a winning machine in Chicago racing environs, taking 14 training titles between Sportsman's Park, Hawthorne and Arlington Park. But with the sugar of winning came the vinegar of training for his chief owner, printing magnate Frank Calabrese.

Calabrese's main goal was to win the owners title in every meet he ran. To do this he'd claim a horse out of a $20,000 race, for example, and then drop him next time out into a $14,000 or $10,000 race - and get the win. Over and over and over again. Legal, but also very influential on the race pools and wagering "opportunities." It made many of those races nearly impossible to bet, unless you were willing to eke out a payoff from very low prices. Before the PolyTrack, general low quality, and misplaced marketing efforts, this was a problem Arlington had for years.

But win they did, despite calling it Splitsville more than once. Not too much different from the travails of Jay Z and his lovely Beyonce; it was business.

It was really great to see the racing gods smile upon him later with quality horses he could work his magic with. Cat Man, winner of nearly 1,800 races as a jockey, became especially handy training two-year-old fillies, winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies two out of three years with one of my favorites, Calabrese-owned Dreaming of Anna in 2006, and then She Be Wild in 2008. Those two both won Eclipse Awards as best two-year-old filly of the year. Stephanie's Kitten won the 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.

Highlights of a roster too large to print, he also trained 'Anna's full brother, Lewis Michael, winner of the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington and the Pat O'Brien Handicap at Del Mar. Early on, Catalano scored with Crypto Star in the 1997 Louisiana Derby and Arkansas Derby en route to a fifth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, behind winner Silver Charm, the respectable Captain Blodgit and future breeding great Pulpit.

Catalano's barn had Irish You Well in Sunday's Haskell Invitational and don't think I didn't play him. He finished a hard-working fourth for his part in the superfecta.

The only thing missing Saturday was an interview with the seemingly shy Catalano and his subtle native-New Orleans twang. When he was having all that Breeders' Cup success, it sure was fun watching him steel himself in the winner's circle and take the questions like bullets. But always with honest, natural answers.

Here's wishing the Cat Man a speedy recovery.

Classic Chrome
Even though horse trainers include on their job descriptions the title Chief Spokesman, they rival a mayoral press secretary in not really saying anything. Just not nearly as arrogant.

Have you given your jockey Junior Smalls any instructions? "We want to get away clean and then Junior will make the decision; I don't tell him what to do. We want to be close to the pace but we're content to lay back." Huh?

You just won the Grade I Gargantuan Stakes. What's next? "I'll sit down with the owner and we'll discuss it." Or, "The horse will tell us how he's doing." What do I know? I'm just the trainer.

Why The Casino Classic? "It's a good fit for the hor$e."

But California Chrome trainer Art Sherman came as close as I've heard to a trainer tipping his hand - if not flat out announcing - that the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner may next enter the $1,000,000 Pennsylvania Derby on September 21st, at Parx Casino and Racing (formerly Philadelphia Park). Will Take Charge won it last year. No Kentucky Derby winner has ever run in this race.

The forum wise guys already speculate that 'Chrome will fly across the country simply to avoid Shared Belief in the $250,000 Awesome Again Stakes September 27th at Santa Anita, this year's site of the Breeders' Cup.

Vacationing since the Belmont Stakes, 'Chrome is back in training. Why not a quick van ride to the host track to prepare for the Breeders' Cup Classic? The better chance for a win in Philly and the money, that's why.

The Penn Derby also puts California Chrome's final prep six weeks out from the Classic, versus four weeks for Shared Belief. From a wagering point of view, will 'Chrome have any foundation in the BC Classic, the biggest and toughest race of his career? This is very likely a good indicator of just how much effort he put into the Triple Crown series: Maybe too much. He probably was fully unable to run in this past weekend's Haskell and you don't run the Travers without a prep. Penn will be his prep for the Breeders' Cup.

If Sherman can train California Chrome into a Classic win, the guy's good.

If California Chrome runs next year, the Coburn-Martin-Sherman connections are great. I'll believe it when I see it.

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Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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