Updated on 09/16/2011 8:06AM

Candor useful, research better


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Racing has plenty of new issues to debate these days as consolidation, simulcasting and in-home betting are rapidly and continually changing the face of the sport. It was an old issue, however, that generated the most passion at last Sunday's Jockey Club Round Table: the use of permitted raceday medication and the effect it may have had on the breed and the sport over the last 30 years.

The efficacy of Bute and Lasix used to be a hot issue in racing, but even the hay-oats-and-water purists seemed to throw in the towel on this one over the last decade. New York was the last significant holdout to permit Lasix, and B's and L's have become a standard part of almost every horse's raceday equipment.

Then last Sunday, Gary Biszantz, chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, made the most provocative remarks of many a Round Table, suggesting that the industry might have made a massive and historic wrong turn on this matter.

"I personally believe," he told the assemblage of industry heavyweights, "that we were led astray years ago by some - just some - in the scientific community who made us believe that increased medication usage would increase field sizes, allow horses to race longer, and make more starts per year, when the facts today clearly show the reverse is true of every promise.

"Medicine, technology, and science have significantly lengthened the life of humans," he added later. "Why are the statistics so opposite for the horse? They don't last as long. They don't race faster. But they are more brittle, and they run less."

This is strong stuff coming from the head of the sport's biggest organization of owners and breeders. It was a sincere cry from the heart and accurately reflects the private sentiments of many who worry about the direction both the game and the Thoroughbred breed may be taking.

What it is not, however, is sound or convincing evidence that raceday medication is necessarily the culprit. More research, which should be undertaken, is a prerequisite for that conclusion.

The problem is that coincidence is not the same thing as causation. It is irrefutable that horses make fewer starts and have shorter careers than they used to, and that this trend has occurred during the same period of time that raceday use of Bute and Lasix has become commonplace. It has also happened during the same timespan that trifecta betting and turf sprints have become popular in American racing, but that doesn't mean those phenomena explain the weakening of the breed.

There is a better chance that medication is indeed a factor, but there's no real proof. What is needed is a very high level of statistical analysis to strip away all the other factors that have changed the breed and the game, and then some real apples-to-apples comparisons. Someone needs to contrast the progeny of the breeding stock that has raced with medication with the progeny of those who raced clean. Comparisons should be made between racing circuits that offer the same amount of racing they did 30 years ago and today.

Raceday medication may be weakening the breed and reducing the duration of racing careers, but so probably are expanded and year-round racing, state breeding programs that perpetuate unsound and inferior bloodlines, shorter races, harder racing surfaces, a shift in the distribution of stakes purses toward younger horses - and probably a dozen other factors. It is a challenge to isolate the truly causative factors, but an effort well worth undertaking. Biszantz is obviously correct that anyone who claimed raceday medication would lengthen horses' careers was wrong, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's shortening them. It may be, but let's find out.

Biszantz should be commended for his candor and for raising an issue that deserves ongoing monitoring and better analysis. Beyond the specific raceday medication issue, his remarks were important because "improving the breed" is more than an antique cliche. It's supposed to be part of the breeding and ownership equation for industry participants with a conscience as well as a profit motive. It's unrealistic to ask investors not to race horses until they are fully mature 5-year-olds or to eliminate truly therapeutic medication from any athlete's preparation, but there's a responsibility for each generation to preserve and enhance the bloodlines of which they are ultimately just temporary caretakers.

Further analysis of the effect of medication and every other new factor in the last 30 years will not only provide needed answers but also illustrate a commitment to doing the right thing by the Thoroughbred racehorse. The one thing that's certain is that everyone could be doing a better job of that.