Asmussen and Thyroxine

As is my tradition, Thanksgiving is for family, not betting horses, so I won’t be posting selections this week. However, I want to give thanks for all the friends and followers I’ve made in the last year. It’s a lot of work doing the selections and the blog, but knowing it is appreciated is payment enough. Meanwhile, horseracing news never stops, so here is a new blog on the trevails of Steve Asmussen and his fight with PETA. Enjoy.


We waited for the decision on Steve Asmussen and his alleged abuse of horses (as presented by PETA) for what seemed like years. Actually it was years. I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. The New York State Gaming Commission called the most serious PETA allegatons “unfounded.” I expect that will hardly discourage PETA. Horseracing for them is animal abuse for a number of reasons, but mostly because it is horseracing.

Any relief Asmussen may have felt was short lived, because while he didn’t face penalties for the worst of the PETA allegations, he did get fined $10,000  for the administration of thyroxine, a hormone made by the thyroid gland and one of the most important of the thyroid hormones, less than 48 hours before a race. In humans it affects almost every process of the body, including body temperature, growth and heart rate. It is estimated that 20 million Americans (7% of the population) suffer from some form of thyroid disease. (Consider this a public service announcement. Get your thyroid levels checked.)

Although Asmussen beat the worst of the raps, the NYSGC found that three PETA allegations against Asmussen or his team were valid: that veterinarian Joseph Migliacci allowed partially completed furosemide eligibility forms to be completed by third-parties in his presence; that thyroxine was used without evidence of its medical necessity; and that Asmussen administered synthetic thyroxine.

Interestingly, those three things are not covered by Commission regulations, and he was not fined for any of them. One of Asmussen’s lawyers, Clark Brewster, criticized the NYSGC fine Asmussen received for thyroxine because they never held a formal hearing or presented allegations to which he could respond.

Brewster said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have some due process? It is not a drug. It is a hormone. It’s not listed in any way as a drug or hormone that you cannot use.” He added that it was the first time to his knowledge that anyone had been fined for using thyroxine.

In researching hypothroidism in horses, the consensus seems to be that, unlike the human population, it is a rare condition in horses, and there are a lot of things that can impact throid levels, including

  • The age of a horse (young horses have higher levels than adult horses)
  • Season (cold temperatures stimulate the thyroid gland while warm temperatures inhibit it)
  • Time of day (levels generally spike in the late afternoon and are lowest between midnight and 4 a.m.)
  • Use of anti-inflammatories at the time of testing (corticosteroids suppress thyroid function, and NSAIDS will also skew test results)
  • Stress, systemic inflammation (e.g., infection)
  • Activity level (horses in training have more circulating thrroid level)
  • Animals eating  while being sampled tend to have higher thyroid levels
  • Certain plants can inhibit thyroid function by altering iodine metabolism.
  • Certain medications (e.g., bute and acepromazine) can lower thyroid hormone levels
  • Even dietary imbalances in daily iodine intake can cause imbalances in daily thyroid levels.

The point is that it is not inconceivable that Asmussen’s vet could have measured levels that indicated hypothyroidism, even if it was related to external factors, and recommended thyroxine therapy. In fact, Asmussen’s attorney Brewster said Asmussen used the hormone on limited horses on the advice of veterinarians to treat low thyroid levels. “It wasn’t just haphazard use of a hormone,” he said. He also noted that the “proof” of Asmussen’s indiscriminate use of thyroxine came from PETA, and was not gathered by NYSGC investigators. In the absence of blood tests, no animal doctor could reach a conclusion on a horse’s hormone levels, and according to Brewster, Asmussen willingly provided all the records that would have justified thyroxine treatment.

All things considered, fining Asmussen may have been as much a political move as one that was necessary to protect racing. Even if anecdotally the chances of Asmussen’s horses having hypothyroidism seem pretty minimal, by stepping outside due process NYSGC has raised legitimate concerns that they are willing to ignore their own rules in an effort to appease outside groups or to put themselves in some sort of limelight. Asmussen’s lawyer pointed out that thyroxine isn’t listed anywhere as a banned substance and this is true for a whole slew of vitamins, hormones, and supplements. NYSGC applied tortured reasoning to fine Asmussen for a substance that is not illegal to use, and it is a short distance to making anything they please a finable offense.

There is another interpretation of the NYSGC action to fine Asmussen. Because NYSGC wasn’t going to punish Asmussen for the most serious PETA violations, they wanted to either prove they took PETA seriously, throw them a bone, or perhaps get them off their case. NYSGC made it a point to conclude three of the PETA allegations had merit, even though none of the three was a violation of NYSGC regulations. NYSGC executive director Robert Williams, in a written statement, praised PETA for its role “in bringing about changes necessary to make Thoroughbred racing safer and fairer for all.” Considering they slathered Asmussen with the nasty allegations that NYSGC determined had no merit, and their major contribution was pointing out Asmussen’s vet oversaw filling out forms instead of doing it himself, there wasn’t proof positive from PETA that Asmussen’s horses had hypothyroidism, and Asmussen treated his horses himself with a legal, therapeutic medication, it might be a little over the top to give PETA too much credit, unless of course there was some pandering going on.

It also could have been a message to those pushing for federal legislation that New York can take care of business and doesn’t need U.S. ADA intervention.

Lest you wonder if keeping PETA at bay was on NYSGC’s mind, a story in the Blood Horse noted NYSGC didn’t stop at dispensing with Asmussen.  It said, They (NYSGC) also proposed changes in drug rules. NYSGC said it wants to make it impossible for veterinarians and trainers to “experiment” with drugs or use them as a training tool. One rule read, “No drug may be administered except to treat a diagnosed medical disorder or as a generally accepted preventive medical practice.”

It went on, “No drug or other substance that could abnormally affect a horse should be administered unless in the course of reasonable, good-faith care of the horse,” states the proposed rule change. Officials said the wording is meant to broadly bolster regulators’ enforcement abilities against the improper use of drugs. The NYSGC also is advancing draft rules to require that trainers keep logs of any drugs a stable gives to a horse, and new rules for how veterinarians can renew equine drug prescriptions.

To be fair, PETA influence or not, it’s a reasonable protection to draw the line between using therapeutic medications to enhance performance and using them to legitimately treat a condition. The wording may need some scrutiny (what exactly does “abnormally affect” mean), but the idea is at least legitimate for discussion.

Back to Asmussen, as I’ve said in the past, applying a broad, generic definition means EVERYTHING is performance enhancing, including water (I certainly hope pointing that out doesn’t get it on the NYSGC list of finable substances). If Asmussen gives his horses feed, it contains all sorts of “performance enhancing” vitamins and minerals. Is it just a matter of time before enriched feed becomes illegal, especially if NYSGC rules wind up with highly interpretable language?

If NYSGC gets away with fining Asmussen without establishing his guilt for violating a Commission rule at a hearing where he has a chance to defend himself, we are officially on the slippery slope. Not a single one of the people on that Commission would approve of a legal system that would convict them of a crime, and punish them, without having a hearing in front of an impartial judge and an impartial jury with an opportunity to present their side of the case. Yet, they don’t think twice about acting with the authority of an imperial monarch in this case.

Whether you think Asmussen should be punished for administering thyroxine is beside the point. You should be incensed at the way NYSGC handled the situation. Regardless of your passion for punishing trainers who look to gain an edge by administering performance enhancing substances, it is a black eye for horseracing to punish a trainer without a proper hearing, sufficient factual evidence, and an opportunity to present a defense. Don’t miss the point – this isn’t about thyroxine. This isn’t about needing more rules to constrain drug use. It’s about how the future bodes for trainers that are found in violation of rules that never existed. It is about absolute power corrupting absolutely.

I would hope the horsemen do not let this pass unchallenged. NYSGC owes everyone a legal, defensible justification for Asmussen’s fine.

Qui tacet consentit