When British Prime Minister William Gladstone suggested that “justice delayed is justice denied” more than a hundred years ago, he almost certainly didn’t have the integrity of Thoroughbred racing in mind. But the idea that postponing punishment imposed for an offense simply for the sake of convenience crops up every now and then, especially when a jockey or trainer continues to win races while a suspension is being appealed.
Take Steve Asmussen. He won an Eclipse Award last year after sending out a record 622 winners, including two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, and he’s the leader in both wins and money earned this year. Asmussen kicked off August with a banner weekend—Soul Warrior scored a major upset over classic winner Mine That Bird in the West Virginia Derby (gr. II) and Kensei won the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) on Aug. 1, then Rachel Alexandra won the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) against males the next day. Not a bad couple of days by anyone’s standard, even an Eclipse Award winner. It was a wonderful showing for a trainer who had been suspended for six months just two weeks earlier.
On July 15, following a hearing, Asmussen’s trainer’s license was pulled for six months and he was fined $1,500 by the Board of Stewards at Lone Star Park. More than a year earlier, a horse trained by Asmussen tested positive for Hydroxylidocaine, a metabolite of lidocaine. The suspension was supposed to run from July 20, 2009 through January 15, 2010. Since state racing commissions tend to reciprocate regarding suspensions in other jurisdictions, Asmussen would be shut out of the Breeders’ Cup and all the other lucrative fall races—if the suspension remained in force.
Asmussen paid his fine and filed an appeal to the Texas Racing Commission, requesting a review of the Lone Star Park stewards’ decision and a stay of the suspension. A stay, if you don’t happen to have a legal dictionary at hand, is a suspension of a proceeding until there is further action—in this case, review of the stewards’ decision by the Racing Commission. The stay was granted on July 16, leaving Asmussen free to continue training until a final resolution of the alleged drug violation. If the Texas Racing Commission sides with the stewards and against Asmussen, the trainer then can go to court where, presumably, another stay would be issued.
Is it fair for Asmussen to use legal tactics to postpone a drug-related suspension?
The Texas Rules of Racing specifically provide for an appeal of an unfavorable stewards’ decision to the state racing commission, and for judicial review of an adverse commission ruling. Asmussen is exercising the legal rights guaranteed him by state law, nothing more. The right to appeal protects Asmussen and everyone else. With questions about testing procedures and the validity of the “zero tolerance” policy in place in Texas (the subject of an upcoming posting), it would be foolish for Asmussen not to take advantage of everything the law allows.