11/19/2015 1:34PM

Crist: A Lasix argument that doesn't hold water


The results of a Daily Racing Form survey on medication last month attracted scant attention when published Oct. 26, understandable since entries had just been taken for the Breeders’ Cup races later that week. They are worth another look, however, as they contained a key finding that contradicts a theory that many in the industry have been promoting for years.

That finding was not that the 1,860 survey respondents were virtually split on the issue of whether the legal diuretic Lasix should be permitted on race day, with 42 percent opposed and 41 percent in favor. It wasn’t that frustrated customers overwhelmingly support federal rather than local oversight of testing for illegal substances. The surprise came when respondents were asked to rank 10 issues facing the industry in order of their importance: Lasix usage ranked ninth of 10 overall and dead last among those who bet the most.

From the way the industry presents itself to the public, you would have thought Lasix was 3-5 to finish first instead of ninth. Much of the narrative surrounding the sport in the general media for the last five years has been that the industry is locked in a fierce debate over Lasix, a debate that is driving customers away from the sport and whose outcome will determine the future viability of the industry. In fact, respondents ranked Lasix usage as significantly less important than genuine integrity issues involving illegal drugs or wagering issues including takeout rates and field size.

This overwhelming repudiation of the importance of the Lasix issue is important rather than merely interesting. The results finally disprove the flimsy premise that disagreements over Lasix are why racing is slowly losing customers in an increasingly competitive sports and gambling market. This always sounded like fantasy to anyone who has actually ever talked with a horseplayer, but the fiction has been perpetuated in one industry symposium and hand-wringing editorial after another.

It all stemmed from a naïve, if not willful, misreading of a completely ambiguous online survey several years ago that asked horseplayers if they approved of medication. The question was so vague, never mentioning Lasix, that respondents likely thought they were voting against illegal, race-altering hops, not a heavily regulated and transparent program of giving diuretics to virtually every horse in the game. When more than 80 percent of the respondents unsurprisingly answered that they were “opposed to medication,” Lasix opponents misrepresented this to mean that an overwhelming majority of customers was deeply disturbed by the routine administration of Lasix.

Rather than going back and doing any further research to see if it was Lasix or illegal drugs that customers were truly concerned about, Lasix opponents ran with the statistic that more than 80 percent of racing’s customers are opposed to all medications, regardless of whether they have therapeutic value or are used to cheat, and repeat it to this day. Now we know this simply is not true.

The blurring of the enormous difference between the administration of Lasix and the pursuit of chemical cheaters has damaged efforts to make progress on that latter issue, the area of actual customer concern. Legislation to establish federal oversight of medication and testing is opposed by many horsemen’s groups, partly because they are fearful that it is really a proxy scheme of empowering pliable bureaucrats to ban Lasix. The best way that proponents of the legislation could broaden its appeal would be to clearly and publicly divorce the Lasix issue from the issue of federal oversight.

There are plenty of well-meaning people on each side of the Lasix debate and plenty of legitimate reasons to favor or oppose its use. Wherever one stands, perhaps we can all agree to stop pretending that one of those reasons is the loss of business from outraged fans.

Perhaps, too, the industry leaders who have consistently misidentified Lasix as a primary customer concern could turn to more legitimate ones. Racing’s central problem is that it presents a frequently unappealing product of small and noncompetitive fields with wagering conducted under high takeout and unfair taxation. If one-tenth the time spent talking about Lasix were devoted to those issues, the sport might actually make some progress on them – and it would be addressing matters that the customers actually care about.