Whatever momentum may have been gained over the past 18 months to eliminate race-day medication in North America has stalled, at least as far as I can see.
Outside of Kentucky, I have heard of no plans by any regulatory agencies to change current rules and institute a phase-out of race-day drugs, specifically the anti-bleeding medication furosemide, better known as Lasix. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, on a close vote and after bitter debate, moved earlier this year to phase out Lasix, beginning with 2-year-old stakes races in 2014.
The American Graded Stakes Committee, which voted in August 2011 to ban Lasix in 2012 Graded stakes for 2-year-olds, postponed that decision earlier this year and has made nary a peep on the subject since.
The Association of Racing Commissioners International, which in March of 2011 issued a call for a five-year plan to phase out race-day medication, has also been silent on the subject.
The Jockey Club is an advocate for drug-free racing, but it lacks the clout needed to get things done in this area.
Then, of course, there is the Breeders' Cup, which instituted a new policy in 2012 abolishing all race-day medication in its five championship races for 2-year-olds. That policy change is to extend to all Breeders' Cup races in 2013.
Depending on who you ask, that Lasix-free maiden voyage in 2-year-old races at Santa Anita Park this year was either a success or a troubling harbinger of things to come.
The races were formful, with favorites finishing first or second in four of the five events. No horses were pulled up because of bleeding incidents, and no jockeys came back with blood-splattered silks or breeches.
But trainers or owners of at least three of the juvenile runners at the Breeders' Cup complained that their horses bled after being examined by endoscope. And the point they made – that Lasix can help prevent exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage and is a “humane” treatment (versus withdrawing a drug the horses had been using being inhumane) – was effective.
Then there were the no-shows. Owner Mike Repole kept his 2-year-olds in New York rather than send them to Southern California for the Breeders' Cup and race without Lasix. Other owners, though not as outspoken, may have done the same. The Juvenile attracted just nine runners and the Juvenile Fillies eight.
By comparison, only twice before in the 28 Breeders' Cup Juveniles have their been fewer than 10 starters: eight each in 1997 and 2009. The Juvenile Fillies had eight runners in 1993 and '95, and nine in 1999 and '01.
The absence of Lasix kept some 2-year-olds away. There is also the possibility that the new Kentucky Derby points system did the same. In years past, by virtue of the purse money won, victory in the Juvenile guaranteed a spot in the starting field for the Derby; this year, the win was worth 10 points, no more than any other 2-year-old stakes in the list of qualifying events.
No matter the reason, fewer horses means lower pari-mutuel handle, and betting was down from 2011 on the Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies. Betting handle is one thing Breeders' Cup can ill afford to see slip away.
Total wagering on this year's 15 Breeders' Cup championship races was $127.7 million, down from $140.1 million. That's the lowest it's been since the Breeders' Cup was expanded to two days in 2007. In fact, it's lower than the $134 million wagered on the last one-day Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs in 2006 when there were only eight races.
Without question, Hurricane Sandy played a role in the 2012 wagering declines. It's possible the late post times for East Coast horseplayers also led to decreased handle. But anyone who studies handle knows that shorter fields lead to lower handle.
In that case, the Breeders' Cup board is at a gut-check moment as it looks toward the 2013 return to Santa Anita Park. If no horses are allowed to compete on Lasix, as the policy currently states, what impact will that have on the field size of all 15 races? What would a potential loss of two or three horses per race mean on wagering? Can the Breeders' Cup sustain its current purse levels if wagering suffers further declines next year?
If there is no further movement by other state racing commissioners to ban race-day medication, Kentucky will be facing similar questions if it pushes forward on its own to ban Lasix.
The Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association realized how difficult it would be to convince regulators or legislators in the various racing states to change their rules to suit the American Graded Stakes Committee's admirable pursuit of drug-free racing. If the committee persisted, there was the possibility it would become irrelevant.
The Breeders' Cup cannot afford to follow that path.
This is a divisive issue, in some cases pitting owners against their trainers and veterinarians. It is not healthy for a sport already in trouble to have protracted debates about whether a drug should or shouldn't be given to horses before they race, or to have permissive use of the drug for some horses but not others. We know from experience that getting medication uniformity through dozens of state racing commissions is an impossible dream.
There is only one way to eliminate race-day medication in horses racing in the United States and bring our rules and regulations in line with the rest of the world. That is through federal legislation.
Until proponents of drug-free racing are ready to approach this issue on a national basis and push for a federal law, it may be time for Breeders' Cup and others to give up the fight.
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