07/15/2011 2:41PM

Breeders' Cup's Lasix stance no overall fix


The announcement Thursday that the Breeders’ Cup will ban raceday medications including Lasix from its juvenile races in 2012, and from all its races beginning in 2013, was a bold and historic move that raises a number of short- and long-term questions.

Let’s start with one of each: Is it likely to affect the fields for those races and how the horses will perform? And will the ban be an isolated, symbolic gesture affecting only 15 of the 30,000 or so races run in this country each year, or will it lead to changes in the other 29,985?

For those who have been around the American racing game for more than a generation, the issue of horses going off Lasix for major races is not a new one. While the history is a bit murky – the official charts of the Triple Crown races do not carry Lasix information before 1986, and Breeders’ Cup charts show its use only starting in 1991 – this was a major issue in New York racing in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Horses who used Lasix in other jurisdictions were not permitted to race on it when they came to New York for races such as the Belmont Stakes or the fall championship events such as the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold, and for the 1990 Breeders’ Cup at Belmont Park. New York was the last major racing state to ban Lasix until throwing in the towel in 1994, just in time for the 1995 Breeders’ Cup at Belmont.

Alysheba, the first Derby winner known to have raced on Lasix, was not permitted to run with it when he bid for the Triple Crown in the 1987 Belmont. Jack Van Berg, his trainer, blamed the colt’s fourth-place finish on an impatient ride rather than the lack of medication. He did not race again in New York until the fall of 1988, when his owners, somewhat stung by criticism that the colt had not won a race without it, sent him out to an authoritative Lasix-free Woodward victory.

The 1990 Triple Crown season was filled with talk of Lasix. Unbridled and Summer Squall used it en route to their respective Derby and Preakness victories, then Summer Squall skipped the Belmont in large pert because of the Lasix ban and never raced in New York again. Unbridled ran fourth in that Belmont without it, but later that fall won the last Lasix-free Breeders’ Cup Classic. Cigar, widely considered the top racehorse of the 1990’s, used Lasix in 15 of his 16 straight victories from 1994 to 1996, but ran just as well without it in two starts in New York and one in Dubai.

So will the Breeders’ Cup become like New York in the early 1990’s, where horsemen had to find a way to deal with a ban for just one race, or will the ban spread to other major events? Attention will now turn to the hosts of the three Triple Crown races, and to the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders’ Association, which confers Grade 1 status on over 100 races a year.

Will they find it contradictory that a horse can race with Lasix in 2-year-old fixtures such as the Champagne, Norfolk, and Breeders’ Futurity, be denied in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile races, use it again as 3-year-olds in the Triple Crown, and then go off it if they return for a Breeders’ Cup Classic? Will the Breeders’ Cup put pressure on tracks to ban Lasix from Win and You’re In qualifying races that secure Breeders’ Cup berths? Will prominent horse owners, including the Breeders’ Cup board members who supported the ban, wean their horses off Lasix or continue to use it in the 99.9 percent of American races that will still permit it?

It’s an uncomfortable situation when you have one set of rules for a handful of championship races and star horses and another for all the rest. As things stand, we’re going to see Breeders’ Cup cards where the seven or eight Cup races will be run without medication, but the B’s and L’s will still be there for the supporting races on the undercard. Advocates say they had to start somewhere and hope this is the start of a massive rollback in raceday medication throughout the sport. Detractors are already rolling their eyes and saying that a Breeders’ Cup-only ban is nothing but a hypocritical and cosmetic attempt to appease critics.

It will be interesting to see how horsemen cope with a Lasix-free Breeders’ Cup in 2013 after more than two decades where over 90 percent of the starters used it – but even more interesting to see if it affects more than two of the 365 days a year of American racing.