Gonzo US racing culture strung out on narcotic decadence

Dangers of allowing a sport to turn into a medication free for all is evident in America

Steve Asmussen: Runs the fancied Tapiture in the Kentucky Derby but was also the subject of an undercover investigation. Photograph: Rob Carr/Getty Images

Steve Asmussen: Runs the fancied Tapiture in the Kentucky Derby but was also the subject of an undercover investigation. Photograph: Rob Carr/Getty Images

Mon, Apr 28, 2014, 11:01

It was 1970 when Hunter Thompson returned to his old Louisville stomping ground and declared the Kentucky Derby to be decadent and depraved, which when you think of some of the stuff the whacked-out, gun-toting loon liked to indulge in, is a pretty cool compliment.

Hunter didn’t go back to “the Durby” again, maybe because he knew his local-yokel dissection would be tough to top. His famously withering essay became a gonzo benchmark and reading it is always a good way to dilute any posthumously cuddly Johnny Depp-delusions about Thompson’s skanky reality.

It has also become the most famous piece of literature on “the most exciting two minutes in sport”, which is ironic as it actually is not about the race at all.

There’s only one paragraph about the supposed point of the whole thing and how Thompson didn’t bet on the winner, Dust Commander. That’s fair enough. Thompson’s expertise concerned a different kind of horse and he wasn’t there to tout. His piece was brilliant and incendiary and still pulsates with energy 44 years later. But in general terms it was a piece of social filleting that could have been done at any event anywhere in the America of the time. The derby was just a convenient hook on which to hang it.

Thompson’s specific depiction of bourbon-swilling good ol’ boy debauch remains pretty much the prism through which America still views its greatest horse race, the sole slot in the US sporting calendar when racing pokes its way into the general consciousness.

Bitterness and hypocrisy
In fact, in a twist that no doubt would have fused Thompson’s befuddled brain even more, his teeming, drunken, tits-flashing, piss-reeking infield of renown is now embraced as part of the folklore, a Vegas-like rite of passage to experience at least once, another shallow two-fingered retort to bitterness and hypocrisy that surely a bright man like Thompson knew were never going to go away.

As for the Derby – “Total chaos, no way to see the race, not even the track . . . nobody cares,” he wrote.

And that’s fair enough in its way too. But when the 20 horses line up for this Saturday’s Run for the Roses, even the infield, and its millions of beery brethren watching on telly, might care, if fully cognisant, about integrity issues American racing is battling with right now.

No doubt Thompson would mumble something brilliantly cutting about racing and integrity being placed together in one sentence. But although he wasn’t interested, even he must have realised the hook essentially consisted of those two minutes. Everything else hangs off what happens on the track. And in the business of one horse running faster than another, American racing was a lot more at ease with itself when Thompson was nibbling at it all those years ago.

Now it’s not pissed-up one-offs but large parts of society in general that are putting the boot into American racing’s medication culture and its impact on horse welfare, which in turn makes it all the more remarkable that blatant self-interest still doesn’t appear enough to move those in charge of the sport into responding properly.

Even America’s brief move towards more forgiving synthetic racing surfaces instead of traditional dirt has been largely reversed despite evidence that such surfaces, although expensive to maintain, significantly reduce on equine injuries. The obvious conclusion that this matters less than the bottom line is hardly a specifically American one, although it’s hard to imagine anywhere else taking such perverse pride in its isolationism, especially when it comes to the real scourge of medication.

Unusual muscle development
Racing in this part of the world has learned not to be too pious about drugs but if you want to see the dangers of allowing a sport turn into a medication free for all, then look at America.

It is a decades-long nod-and-wink backstretch understanding that can produce two-year-olds with the sort of muscle mass that often requires an outside light shone upon it. Such interest has most recently come from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) rights group which revealed an undercover investigation of the top trainer Steve Asmussen and accuses him of subjecting horses to cruel treatment. Racing commissions in New York and Kentucky are investigating the matter.

Asmussen, the second winning-most American trainer of all time, has in the past been suspended for horses returning positive drug tests, something that can also be said for recent derby-winning trainers Doug O’Neill and Rick Dutrow.

An undercover Peta video reveals Asmussen’s former assistant talking about the 2011 Derby runner-up, Nehro, competing in the race despite serious foot ailments. No one knows how the matter will end but there have been calls for the trainer to say away from the Derby “for the good of the game”. A futile ask since he trains the fancied Tapiture for the race.

In fact it can be argued a win for Tapiture, and the attendant publicity, might be best for the long-term health of racing in the US, maybe forcing a meaningful look at systematic problems that go way beyond one individual.

Because keeping the party going when there’s so much wrong with the fundamental basis of that party really is decadent and depraved.

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