I wrote last November that the Breeders' Cup was at a “gut-check moment” in its history because of a 2011 decision to phase out furosemide, better known as Lasix, as a permitted race-day medication during its annual championships. The diuretic used to treat exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage was banned for the five Breeders' Cup races for 2-year-olds in 2012 and is supposed to be prohibited in all 15 races this year.
“Supposed to be” being the operative phrase.
On Friday morning, the Breeders' Cup board of directors, meeting at Gulfstream Park, is expected to revisit that July 2011 decision to phase out the drug.
The climate for change is different today than it was 18 months ago when the new ruled was adopted. Several North American racing organizations were moving to eliminate Lasix in 2011. Will Koester, then chairman of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, said he would push for a five-year phase-out of race-day medication. The Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association was considering a new guideline that would remove graded race designations for 2-year-old races beginning in 2012 unless they were run under race-day medication-free rules.
It was in this atmosphere that the Breeders' Cup board approved these rules phasing out race-day medication by 2013.
But the RCI has made no progress on Koester's hopes for setting in place a Lasix phase-out. Early last year, the TOBA backed away from its policy banning drugs for graded 2-year-old stakes and hasn't made a peep on the issue since. That left the Breeders' Cup as the only national organization to go through with a policy to restrict the use of Lasix.
But the Breeders' Cup is not just a “national” organization. It puts on a two-day race meeting it likes to call the “world championships,” and its board of directors voted to run those races under drug-free rules that are similar to those in place throughout the rest of the racing world.
As British trainer John Gosden said to a reporter at last year's Breeders' Cup, “If you're having a so-called world championship, from that point of view you probably need to have it drug-free.” He is viewing the issue through a wide lens: what is best for the long-term interests of the game, and for the long-term interests of the Thoroughbred breed. Lasix enhances performance, Gosden is convinced, and Lasix-enhanced performances can pollute the gene pool.
You won't find more than a handful of American trainers in agreement with Gosden, who understands American racing, having trained in Southern California for more than a decade.
Some of the most vocal of those trainers, several of whom are preparing to send horses to compete in Dubai under race-day medication-free rules, have said a ban on Lasix at the Breeders' Cup will ruin the event, and perhaps the entire sport. They are viewing the issue from the narrowest of lenses: what they believe is best for their individual horses on the day they race, and for their own success and that of their owners. They fear owners will flee the game if they buy horses that bleed and cannot compete with Lasix.
The Breeders' Cup board members are divided. Some believe it is their responsibility to continue the push toward drug-free racing, that is in the best interests of the breed and the purity of the sport. Others are convinced Lasix is a therapeutic drug that is good for horses and that the rest of the racing world is out of step with us.
The balance of power for Friday's critical vote lies with those in the middle who want to see a Breeders' Cup run without medication but who fear the event will lose horses that (along with their trainers) are dependent on the drug. Shorter fields means less wagering and lower revenue to the Breeders' Cup. For them it is a pragmatic decision.
And so the vote is likely to go one of three ways: 1) stay the course and prohibit medication on all Breeders' Cup races beginning this year; 2) reverse field and go back to pre-2012 rules permitting Lasix on race-day; or 3) compromise, keeping the ban on 2-year-old races for another year but permitting Lasix in the other races.
Which way will it go? Hard to say, but I agree with Gosden on this point: keep allowing horses to be given Lasix on race-day if you want to, but you'll have to stop calling it the world championships.
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