Four days into the most prestigious race meeting run in North American, the competition, despite the sometimes equatorial weather, has been contentious if unpredictable and the betting robust.
These trends are typical of this meeting. If racing is not compelling here, then where? If bettors are keeping rubber bands on bankrolls, then what is it that they await? The most aristocratic collection of horse-flesh assembled anywhere for an extended meeting always brings enthusiastic bettors to the windows and early indicators suggest that this will be a season typical of the celebration of the thoroughbred that is renewed here annually.
But even Saratoga is not immune the sort of rash decision that will be both crippling and irreversible if the reactionary fringe has its way. A snowball of rash decision imperils all involved.
At some point before the 1 p.m. post time, an undetermined but significant number of people with intent to wager on the races run on the meeting’s first Monday card sat down to consider the possibilities. Few noticed that of the 89 horses programmed before scratches to run in nine races at Saratoga, 86 — 97 percent — will have been treated with Lasix. This is typical of racing in America and has been for decades; business as usual.
Bettors can deal with the things with which they are familiar. But the unknown begets caution, in this case a caution that is destined to be manifest first in betting handle, then in purses, a point at which the fiscal cascade gains unfortunate and inevitable momentum.
Meanwhile, an ivory tower movement in support of medication-free racing has begun to gain purchase and the Breeders’ Cup has declared that its championship races for 2-year-olds will be run free on Lasix in 2012 and all will be drug-free by 2013, a move that will result in a deep and painful self-inflicted wound. This is, supporters claim, a move toward a global of medication ban to which the rest of the international racing world already subscribes. It is more accurately a well meant if ill advised rush to chaos.
There is no more support for the elimination of Lasix purely in the interest of conforming to the rest of the world among those who train and race horses day in and out than there is in the financial community for emulating the European Union’s sovereign debt structure.
This is no defense of the overly permissive medication rules that prevail in the United States but recognition that these substances are too deeply engrained to eliminate without careful and long-term preparation and methodical execution. That would include, among many thoughtful measures, a severe reduction in racing dates that may not be welcomed by financially pressed owners or tax-hungry state governments. If there is indeed reason to emulate European and Asian racing, the changes required in this country go far deeper than simple medication reform even if supporters of a sudden, out-of-hand ban appear to share the opinion that all is right in the rest of the world.
Those in Europe and Asia can afford an arrogant, elitist posture on medication. A season of racing on either continent does not span the calendar, as it does here. (The two-day week is common in Asia.) Nor do those days embrace a dozen races or more, as is often the case here. Horses in Europe race no more frequently or over greater spans of time than do those bred in North American. Nor do European horses spend most of their lives living in stalls on racetracks. They are trained in the countryside, a far less stressful environment that, say, Aqueduct. American horses, unlike their foreign counterparts, are under constant pressure to earn money.
It is also unreasonable to presume that every horseman in the rest of the world complies blindly with the rules without taking an edge when it presents itself. Where there is money, there is conniving and to believe otherwise goes beyond naïve. The rest of the racing world is not a utopian stronghold of ethics and morals impervious to temptation. Some European horsemen and veterinarians, like some Americans, cheat.
Bottom line: Should medication be eliminated from American racing?
Yes, but the withdrawal must be gradual and should be prefaced by at least a year of full, on-program disclosure of all medications given to horses on and prior to race day. The public should be aware of what is being eliminated, which is not currently the case.
Despite its high profile, Lasix may not be the logical place to start. With anabolic steroids already a thing of the past in racing, corticosteroids would be a logical next step. These are among the medications in the background, not listed on the program but, since they mask joint pain, at least as influential in a sudden improvement of form as any diuretic. They are also, over time, degenerative. Substances that dull or mask pain would follow. In the grand scheme, Lasix may not be the real problem, just the most visible.
Elimination in stages, first in graded, then non-graded stakes, which would preclude the employment of mediation in races for which black type is awarded, provides a structure of withdrawal for both horsemen and bettors. Gradual change offers some basis for orderly planning as well as handicapping analysis. Results of stakes races could be readily extrapolated after the elimination of medication when considering the likely affect of expanded withdrawal on subsequent races for lower levels of horses. Blanket, across-the-board elimination of Lasix, however, would bring about irreversible pari-mutuel Armageddon — a problem more insidious and ultimately debilitating than any posed by the use of Lasix.
Originally Posted on ESPN