09/19/2005 11:00PM

Obsessed? It's a compliment


TUCSON, Ariz. - The recent mail has been entertaining.

One reader thinks I am obsessed with illegal medication, and to him I can offer only what H.L. Mencken said to those who disagreed with him: "You could be right." If he is, I'm proud of the obsession, because it is a cancer eating at the sport.

Kentucky trainer Walter Bindner said in one paragraph of a letter that it was not true, as I had written, that he was moving his horses to Arlington rather than racing at Turfway because of Kentucky's new medication rules. Three paragraphs later, he said in effect that the new policy was precisely the reason, because the new Kentucky medication rules did not contain "established residual levels" and exposed trainers to draconian penalties for a second, even minor, offense. I was delighted, however, to learn that Mr. Bindner has long been in favor of no race-day medication other than Salix. He and I are on the same side of that struggle.

It is time, though, to open another mailbag, one containing a bushel of letters sharing my obsession with illegal drugs. One is from G.R. Buehler, a second-generation trainer in Olds, Alberta, Canada. It arrived as four pages of highly legible handwriting on narrowly lined tablet paper. No pretense, no ostentation, just a long message from the heart of a horseman.

"For a sport once called the Sport of Kings," Mr. Buehler began, "it may now be better known as the Sport of Kinks. From trying to get hold of something nobody else has or something they do not yet have a test for, horsemanship in the real sense is basically dead. No longer is it about taking care of your horses and getting them to be their best. Currently it is a case of butchering horses at a tremendous rate, getting as much as you can as fast as you can at whatever the cost to horse and industry."

Mr. Buehler thinks horse racing has become "a two-tier system," with tracks catering to high-profile stables because they usually have large numbers of horses. Small trainers like himself, he feels, have little chance to get new owners because they can't get stalls. He also thinks vets work on a two-tiered system, one for high-profile trainers and one for the rest.

He wrote: "I have been stabled besides big barns many times, and some of the horses these stables lead over to run I would not even have entered. They are sore, sour and to me should not be asked to run. But these horses go over and you can't beat them. They don't come out of their stalls for days after the race, but for that half an hour every ten days or two weeks all their problems disappear. I can't achieve that with my horses."

Mr. Buehler thinks Lasix is the biggest joke in racing history: "To allow a drug that is used to mask other substances is to me the biggest indication of how low the ethics of racing have fallen. I have run only one horse on Lasix and saw the effect it had and promised I would never put another horse on it. But for other trainers, every horse that comes into their barn, regardless of form or caliber, is put on Lasix at once. Even first-time-starter 2-year-olds. Even European horses who have outstanding records and have made millions of dollars without Lasix in Europe. When they come for the Breeders' Cup some are put on Lasix immediately. If a horse can run and win consistently back home without it, do they magically start to bleed when they cross the Atlantic?"

This fiction of Lasix and bleeding has been dignified by veterinarians, at the request of horsemen, and there now is not even a pretense of bleeding, and no necessary substantiation. All horses bleed, we are told, so all need Lasix. Thoroughbred racing prides itself on history and tradition, but thinks nothing about sending a field of a dozen highly bred 2-year-olds to the post in the Breeders' Cup with all racing on Lasix. This is high-level hypocrisy. If the people who run the Breeders' Cup had the courage to do it, they would ban everything from these supposedly ultimate tests of championship form.

G.R. Buehler also thinks owners should be penalized along with their trainers, by having their horses grounded with them.

To tweak Mencken just a bit, Mr. Buehler could be right.

On all counts.