08/12/2011 1:28PM

Round Table has two issues looming over it


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The Jockey Club Round Table here Sunday morning, the sport’s annual attempt to assess its standing and discuss its future, could not be coming at a better time.

The Round Table is the final event of what is known as Industry Week, seven days when much of the racing world gathers in Saratoga not only for the racing but also for yearling sales, Hall of Fame inductions, and board meetings of virtually every industry organization. The Round Table is a time for reflection and action after all that, and this year’s program appears an unusually strong one: The findings of a comprehensive industry study will be announced, and The Jockey Club itself is stepping up to the plate with a significant financial commitment to support important initiatives such as a significant expansion of televised racing.

This year’s Round Table, however, seems more like a cease-fire than a crescendo after an unusually polarizing week for the sport involving two highly divisive issues that threaten to overshadow whatever positive steps the industry might otherwise agree to undertake.

The first is Lasix, an issue the industry had seemed to put to bed two decades ago but which has suddenly and almost inexplicably risen from the dead because of the threat of some proposed misguided federal legislation that probably had no chance of passage. Not a single state has moved to ban it, and try as they might, opponents of the anti-bleeding medication can not find a single prominent American trainer who supports a ban on it. Even the tiny handful of high-minded owners who want to do away with it continue to give it to their own horses every day, as do the powerful foreign racing interests who say Lasix is the root of all evil in American racing.

Still, last month the Breeders’ Cup announced it would not permit Lasix in its 2012 juvenile races and in all its races in 2013. Then earlier this Industry Week, the American Graded Stakes Committee said it would not award graded status to any 2-year-old races that permit the use of Lasix starting next year.

The Breeders’ Cup can set its own rules as a condition of entry for its races, but what the graded stakes committee is trying to do is more complicated. It has no authority to dictate the conditions of 49 races run in six different states, and it has not secured the cooperation or approval of any of those six states. Is a New Jersey really going to ban Lasix for one race a year, then fight lawsuits from owners and trainers saying this contradicts state law, just so that the Sapling Stakes can keep its Grade 3 ranking?

The second issue ripping apart the sport’s prospects for unity was the long-expected yet still poorly timed announcement that the 2012 Breeders’ Cup will be run at Santa Anita for the third time in five years while Belmont Park has not hosted the event since 2005. New York horsemen are furious about the apparent abandonment of the concept that the Cup should move around the country in an equitable way. Mike Repole, the leading owner at Saratoga, proposed that New York put on its own competing day of championship races – in which Lasix would be permitted – and offered to fund it himself.

New York officials, still bidding for the 2013 races, are remaining polite about the whole thing. So is Craig Fravel, the new Cup chief executive, who at least said at Wednesday’s announcement that New York is part of the Cup’s future. That’s more than can be said for Satish Sanan, a Breeders’ Cup board member who wants to relocate the Cup to California permanently.

On Thursday, Sanan took to the airwaves to defend the 2012 site selection, not on grounds of fairness or what might be best for fans and horsemen, but with the bizarre allegation that Breeders’ Cup purses would have to be slashed by 40 percent if the event were ever run in New York again. This is mystifying to students of reality because the last time there was a Breeders’ Cup in New York, Saturday betting handle sharply exceeded that at Santa Anita in 2008 and 2009.

The shame of it all is that these divisive matters were completely avoidable. Acting on the Lasix issue could have been deferred until there was at least something approaching a consensus instead of the premature issuance of unpopular and possibly unenforceable fiats. The Breeders’ Cup could have done the right thing and gone back to New York in 2012.

Instead, both of these issues will continue to dominate industry discussion regardless of whatever sensible ideas are presented at the Round Table about rebuilding the sport’s declining fan base and making its product more appealing. Let’s hope the two-hour cease-fire Sunday morning is long enough for at least some of that stuff to sink in.

LIVE VIDEO: Watch the Jockey Club Round Table at 10 a.m. Eastern this Sunday »