John Clay: Recent rulings good for horse racing

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 16, 2012 

So you thought the Triple Crown was the end of horse racing news for another year.

Not so fast my equine-loving friend.

The game that often seems stuck in the past has begun thinking ahead via one major ruling and one major change.

First came Wednesday's controversial vote by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission banning the use of Lasix on race days for upper-level stakes races, starting in 2014.

The next day, Churchill Downs announced it was scrapping its graded-earnings scenario for determining Kentucky Derby starters in favor of a point system that varies on the importance and timing of a prep race.

Let's take Lasix first. As soon as the ban on the drug furosemide, used as an anti-bleeder medication, was announced, some hailed it as the death knell for racing in Kentucky. No other state has such a ban, cried the critics. Horsemen will take their horses to other states.

And yet, as racing commission chairman Bob Beck said of Lasix after Wednesday's vote, "It's performance-enhancing. You run better with it than without."

If that wasn't true, why do so many trainers give Lasix to all their horses, not just the ones suspected of being bleeders. Used to be, the "L" designation showed up by just a few horses in the track program. (And those were the ones you would bet on.) Now, nearly all the horses sport that designation.

In 2005, racing writer Bill Finley wrote a piece on the 10-year anniversary of New York lifting its ban on Lasix. Horsemen had argued then, as they do now, that the drug was needed for horses to compete, that it was in the best interest of the breed, that without it tracks would not be able to find enough entries to fill races.

Yet, as Finley pointed out, in 1970, before Lasix, horses averaged 10.22 starts per runner. By 2005, that number was down to 6.5 starts. By 2010, it was 6.23. Tracks are still having a difficult time finding enough eligible horses to fill fields.

Lasix isn't totally to blame for that. There is more money in breeding than racing. And no one would argue that the breed itself is more fragile now. Few would argue, too, that the image of the "chemical horse" has damaged the game's reputation.

To reverse that, someone has to start somewhere. Horses should not be competing on drugs. There is a reason Europeans don't allow the use of race-day medications. There is a legitimate fear European buyers will stop coveting American-bred bloodlines.

"We cannot succeed as a sport with drugs," said owner and breeder Tracy Farmer. "This is the right vote at the right time."

You could say the same thing about Churchill Downs' new grading system. Too many trainers and owners had manipulated the old system, often running in pricey 2-year-old races to earn the monies necessary, then avoiding most major preps before the first Saturday in May.

The new system features 36 stakes races, almost half of which are within 10 weeks of the actual running of the Derby. Preps farther away than the Derby date earn fewer points than ones closer to racing's most famous event.

For example, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile will be worth just 10 points for the winner. The winner of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes will receive 100 points.

Trainers aren't happy. Steve Asmussen told the Daily Racing Form he was "absolutely opposed to these changes." Todd Pletcher lamented that if a horse gets behind schedule and can only run in one prep race, it might not get into the Derby field.

That's just the problem. Too many horses are running fewer and fewer preps. That hurts the races and keeps the sport from enjoying a better build-up that would bring more attention.

"Is the new system perfect? No, but it's a great initiative," Bodemeister's owner, Ahmed Zayat, told the Blood-Horse. "I applaud innovation and I applaud people who are trying to enhance and make racing better for everybody and make it meaningful."

With two changes this week, Kentucky is trying to do just that.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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