08/17/2006 11:00PM

Dependence on drugs begets lesser talents

Benoit & Associates
Soldier Hollow was the only horse in the Million to race without Lasix.

The performance of Soldier Hollow in last Saturday's Arlington Million should hearten anyone who still believes that horses can be trained on hay, oats, and water without recourse to race-day medication.

In finishing third despite being the only horse in the Million running without the aid of Lasix, Soldier Hollow, a German-trained 6-year-old, duplicated the form that had brought him three lesser Group 1 victories in Germany and Italy.

There was a reason owner Helmut von Finck disdained the use of Lasix in the Million. Germany has a rule that excludes any horse from standing at stud and any mare from being bred in that country if he or she has ever run on race-day medication. As von Finck has plans to stand Soldier Hollow at his Gestut Park Wiedingen near Soltau in northern Germany, Soldier Hollow raced clean.

So, too, did the German-bred Proudinsky in the Secretariat Stakes, since his owner, Gary Tanaka, is keeping open the possibility for Proudinsky to one day return to his native land for stud duty. Proudinsky is a son of Silvano, who won the 2001 Arlington Million running drug-free.

The efforts of Soldier Hollow, Silvano, and, even more to the point, Shirocco, the German-bred who won last year's Breeders' Cup Turf without resorting to drugs, exposes the conventional wisdom in America that horses will not be healthy enough to fill the entry boxes if they do not receive Lasix and/or butazolidine. Germany, like Britain, Ireland, France, Italy, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, has never allowed race-day medication, yet the sport prospers in all of those countries. Is it possible to foresee a day when the United States will get back on the same page as the rest of the major racing nations and reimpose a ban on race-day medication?

Don't hold your breath for such an announcement.

There has been much weeping and gnashing of teeth over the inordinate number of racehorse deaths at Arlington Park and Del Mar this year. Some have blamed the carnage on track surfaces, but that is nonsense. When horses have been bred for three generations or more by stallions and mares who themselves raced on Lasix and/or bute, they pass the infirmities masked by these drugs onto their offspring. One of the ways the resulting deterioration of the breed manifests itself is in breakdowns. This year at Arlington and Del Mar, the bottom has dropped out, revealing one of the dirty little secrets long concealed by the masking qualities of race-day medication.

Adding to the problem is the American breeding industry's overriding policy during the last 25 years to breed for speed. Producing top-heavy horses with spindly legs who can zoom a furlong in less than 10 seconds may produce big prices at breeze-up sales, but it is as much a recipe for disaster as race-day medication. Combine the two, and the effect can be lethal.

Lava Man is the poster boy for the short-term benefits of race-day medication. In his last nine outings in which he was allowed the use of race-day Lasix and bute, Lava Man has won eight times, including five at the Grade 1 level, and finished a close third once. But in the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 1 at Belmont, where he was not allowed the use of bute, Lava Man finished seventh, beaten 45 lengths. Eight weeks later in Tokyo, where neither Lasix nor bute is allowed, Lava Man finished 11th in the Japan Cup Dirt, beaten 17 1/4 lengths.

Can there be any doubt that Lava Man is a horse who relies on race-day medication? If there is, let Lava Man run medication-free this Sunday in the Pacific Classic and see how far he gets. Here's betting he wouldn't beat a single horse home.

Fortunately, Lava Man is a gelding, so whatever ills make him dependent on drugs will not be passed on to future generations. The same cannot be said, however, of Barbaro, who raced on Lasix in all seven of his starts, as well as other unspecified drugs in his three races in Maryland and Delaware. Should the Kentucky Derby winner survive his ongoing crisis and make it to the stud farm, he will pass on both his immense talent and the problems that caused his untimely injury.

The esteemed British bloodstock analyst Tony Morris put his finger on the American problem in his Racing Post column of Jan. 5, 2006. "Decades of disguising unsoundness through the use of raceday medication are having their predictable effect," he wrote. "The breed has been weakened, as must happen, while generation after generation of unsound stock is allowed to procreate."

Sad, but true. Even if we were to eliminate race-day medication in America tomorrow, it would take at least three generations before its negative effects could be eliminated.