05/20/2001 11:00PM

Drug policy bleeds sport of integrity


TUCSON, Ariz. - Lasix has become American racing's greatest joke and biggest disgrace.

It is supposed to be a medication for bleeders, and the sport continues to support that pretense, knowing it is a phony excuse. Just how phony came to light two weeks ago in Kentucky, where surprises in medication are not surprising.

America's greatest race, the Kentucky Derby, brought out a field of 17 of the best 3-year-olds in the sport.

All 17 ran on Lasix.

How could that be? Were all 17 bleeders? Have things gotten that bad?

At the suggestion of the Kentucky racing commission office, a call was placed to the state's test barn to clarify the medication rules.

It turns out that under Kentucky rules there was no need for the Derby starters to be certified as bleeders.

"It's assumed," I was told, "that trainers will do what's in the best interest of the horse."

What a gracious vote of confidence, and what a total lack of oversight.

Besides, the assumption apparently applies only to Thoroughbred trainers.

Kentucky's supposed concerns about Lasix are stated clearly in its harness racing rules, which say: "Approval and prescription of Lasix for racing shall be made (a) by the commission veterinarian, or a licensed veterinarian approved by the commission, and (b) if the commission or licensed veterinarian has seen the horse bleed from the nostrils, or the horse has been scoped and declared a bleeder by the commission veterinarian or a licensed veterinarian."

The Thoroughbred rule, on the other hand, merely says: "therapeutic measures and medication required to improve or protect the health of a horse shall be administered to a horse in training under supervision of a licensed veterinarian." But, the rule also says, "no medication, drug, substance or metabolic derivative thereof that might mask or screen the presence of prohibited drugs, or prevent or delay testing procedures" can be used. That could, in some jurisdictions, put a screeching halt to racing on Lasix if a horse was not a bleeder. Not in Kentucky.

As it stands, if a horse trots or paces in Kentucky, the horse has to be scoped or seen bleeding by a vet to use Lasix, but if it gallops,a trainer's word that it needs Lasix is good enough. The double standard is as big as another of Kentucky's attractions, Mammoth Cave, and the hypocrisy is amazing. It also is revealing for a state that has made much of its "reform" policies on medication in the last year.

On Derby Day in Louisville, the 17 runners in the Kentucky Derby were not the only horses racing on Lasix. Ninety-five started that day, and 93 of them were running with Lasix in their systems. Happily, one of the two who was not - the 4-year-old Irish-bred filly Iftiraas, owned by Gary Tanaka, trained by Bill Mott and ridden by Jerry Bailey - won, apparently not having been in this country long enough to start bleeding for Lasix, or to realize that she needed to.

Horses who qualified to use Lasix in Kentucky will be able to do so in Maryland as well, so the Lasix parade will continue Saturday in the Preakness, and presumably in the Belmont as well.

One is free to draw whatever conclusions he or she wishes from the fact that Lasix use now is so commonplace that it is accepted without question at the classic race level, but five seem logical:

1. All race horses bleed internally.

2. Lasix is used for some other purpose.

3. The breed is in serious respiratory trouble.

4. The sport should be ashamed of itself for permitting this, particularly in major stakes.

5. All of the above.

It may be painful for Thoroughbred officials to look at harness racing examples, but the Hambletonian, trotting's counterpart of the Kentucky Derby, does not permit the use of anything, including Lasix. The race conditions state: "No horse shall be permitted to race in the Open or the Oaks with Butazolidin or Lasix."

It might be an idea worth considering for the Triple Crown, at least. There should be some pride left in the greatest classics the sport has to offer.