10/26/2012 4:32PM

Crist: A closer look at the Breeders' Cup Lasix ban


Whether you are an advocate or an opponent of permitting the raceday use of furosemide (Salix) on racehorses, there is no denying that racing has a problem when the first year of a Salix ban at the Breeders’ Cup produces a 50 percent decline in entries for nation’s richest 2-year-old races. You also have to wonder what will happen a year from now when Salix, formerly called Lasix, is scheduled to be prohibited from all 15, rather than just five, of the Breeders’ Cup races.

When pre-entries for the Nov. 2-3 Breeders’ Cup were announced last Wednesday, only nine horses were entered first-preference for the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and only six such fillies for the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, down from 15 and 14 last year. That’s a total of 15 pre-entrants for the two races versus 29 a year ago, a 48 percent dropoff that also accounts for nearly the entire 16-horse decline in Breeders’ Cup pre-entries from 196 in 2011 to 180 in 2012. A prospective field of six or fewer in the Juvenile Fillies would be the smallest in the 29-year history of the Breeders’ Cup and probably the smallest for any $2 million race in the sport’s history.

There are may be other factors in play for the entry-box desertion of racing’s premier juvenile races. Horsemen east of the Rockies are not thrilled about a Cup site-selection process that has landed the races in California four times in six years. Also, Churchill Downs’s widely criticized new system for determining Kentucky Derby starters, which virtually eliminated any impact the Juvenile will have on securing a Derby berth, was no help. Still, the Salix ban was the stated reason that Mike Repole, New York’s leading owner, kept four of his 2-year-olds at home and was a factor in other defections.

The problem is not whether one believes racing would be better off without Salix, but whether the Breeders’ Cup’s new policy is perhaps prematurely out of sync with the rest of the sport in this country. Proponents of a ban say that smaller fields this year and next are a necessary growing pain in an overdue change on which they are taking a leadership position. Opponents say that the Cup has overreached and is trying to impose an elitist minority opinion on a sport that permits Salix in every one of its other 30,000 or so races a year.

When Cup officials announced the policy last fall, they hoped to have more support for their position by now. Some Cup officials say privately that they were virtually assured that Kentucky and New York were going to ban Lasix in 2-year-old races this year, and the American Graded Stakes Committee announced it would not award graded status to any 2-year-old races leading up to the Cup where Salix was permitted.

Those bans never happened, the graded stakes committee rescinded its plan several months later, and if anything the prospects for industry-wide consensus look bleaker than ever. The national Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, and the Thoroughbred Owners of California have all made strong recent statements reiterating their support for the continued use of Salix. The day after the Breeders’ Cup announced pre-entries, the Thoroughbred Owners of California issued a statement about medication reform saying it would “insist that Lasix continue to be allowed on the day of a race.”

There is a massive disconnect between the two sides about support for a ban. Both claim that a majority of horsemen and fans support their position, but there is little data to back widespread support for a ban. An effort to get owners to pledge not to use Salix on their 2-year-olds this year was a commendable case of practicing what you preach but hardly showed majority support: only 2.7 percent of 2-year-old starters at Del Mar raced without it, as did 19.7 percent of such starters at Saratoga.

Supporters of the ban also continue to cite a single, obscure online poll, which did not refer specifically to Salix, as indicative of widespread support from bettors. The respondents to that poll may well have thought they were disapproving of the use of illegal drugs rather than therapeutic and regulated medications. The vast majority of public comment from wagering customers has been that it is not reasonable to ask them to bet on horses who have been permitted to run on the drug all year but will suddenly be racing without it at the Breeders’ Cup.

They have a point. Whether a Salix ban is a noble mission or a misguided crusade, it has to apply to more than 5 or 15 races a year to have any integrity or fairness.