02/22/2013 5:07PM

Steven Crist: Lasix ban and Breeders' Cup cutback: Cause and effect?

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Tom Keyser
Last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint, won by Hightail (center), attracted just five starters.

When the Breeders’ Cup board of directors met Friday, its two most significant agenda items were whether to proceed with a planned ban on Lasix in all 15 of its races this year – and whether it would in fact present all 15 races this year. Were these separate or related issues?

The board discussed but took no official action on the Lasix plan or the proposed eliminations of the Juvenile Sprint and Dirt Mile. The question remains whether those two races have really proven to be failures that should not be part of future Cups, or if reducing the number of races is in part a cosmetic solution to a likely decline in Cup entries because of the Lasix ban.

Even those Cup board members who feel most strongly about banning Lasix from the event realize it is likely to reduce field size of the races. Last year, with a ban in only the five juvenile races, pre-entries were down sharply. In the three dirt events for 2-year-olds – the Juvenile Sprint, Juvenile, and Juvenile Fillies – there was a total of just 22 starters, down from 36 in those three races just a year earlier at Churchill Downs.

So it is understandable that there is serious concern that extending the Lasix ban to all Cup races this year will prompt further decline and defections, especially when extended to races for older horses who have spent their entire careers racing with Lasix. Eliminating one or more races would make those declines less apparent.

When they were introduced, both the Juvenile Sprint and Dirt Mile seemed like naturals with a high probability of success. The one thing American racing seemed to have was plenty of fast sprinting 2-year-olds – the question was always whether they were being asked to stretch out too far too soon. It also seemed to make sense to offer a dirt race for 3-year-olds and up that was longer than the six furlongs of the Sprint and shorter than the 10 furlongs of the Classic, given how much racing there is between those two distances and how prized brilliant milers are as breeding prospects.

It just hasn’t worked out that way. Of the six winners in the Dirt Mile’s brief history – Corinthian, Albertus Maximus, Furthest Land, Dakota Phone, Caleb’s Posse, and Tapizar – only Caleb’s Posse came close to winning an Eclipse Award. The Classic and Sprint continued to draw better fields, and the Mile became a kind of ’tweener poor relation. It didn’t help that the Breeders’ Cup treated the race that way, offering just a $1 million purse next to the $2 million for the Sprint and $5 million for the Classic. Also, the track configurations for four of those six runnings mandated that the race be run around two turns rather than one, making it more of a short route rather than the long sprint of a classic mile race such as the Metropolitan Mile.

The Juvenile Sprint began decently enough two years ago with a field of nine for its inaugural running at Churchill Downs, but was an embarrassment last year, attracting just five starters including a maiden and two fillies. With dozens of precocious and high-quality juvenile debut winners emerging from the summer and early fall race meets, it still seems incomprehensible that so few runners could be corralled.

Was it the idea of such a race that was the problem, or its execution amid other factors last year?

The Lasix ban kept some runners at home; the relatively low $500,000 purse (half that of the Delta Downs Jackpot a month later) was uninspiring; the small fields for the longer juvenile dirt races made some original Juvenile Sprint candidates move into the Juvenile or Juvenile Fillies, which offered purses of $1.8 million as opposed to $500,000; and the unnecessary addition of a turf sprint for juveniles and a sprint for juvenile fillies on the Saturday undercard (which drew a combined 15 starters who otherwise might have been considered for the Juvenile Sprint) did not help.

What is surprising in retrospect is that those two new races were officially labeled as “Breeders’ Cup Preview” in their titles as if they were candidates for elevation to full Breeders’Cup events this year. After one year of a Lasix ban, however, rather than expanding from five to seven juvenile races, the Cup is likelier to cut back from five to four. If extending the Lasix ban to older horses has the same effect, it’s likely that there will be even fewer than 14 or 15 Breeders’ Cup races in the years ahead.