Americans seem to spend a lot of time going to court to claim for themselves "rights" that the Founding Fathers never dreamed of. But even by the standards of a nation gone mad with litigiousness, the events at Bowie Race Course on Saturday were rather incredible.
Dave's Friend, a 5-year-old thoroughbred, finished second in the $25,000 Terrapin Handicap after a court had granted him the right to run with the drug he needs.
Less than a month earlier, the Maryland Racing Commission had set forth rules sharply curtailing the use of the controversial drugs Lasix and Butazolidin. Lasix is a valuable medication that helps curb the tendency to bleed from the nostrils, but trainers had misused and overused it so flagrantly that the commissioners felt they had to crack down.
Since Bowie opened on May 26, horses were permitted to use Lasix only if the state veterinarian had observed them bleeding on the track after a race. This tight restriction reduced the once-lengthy "bleeder list" in Maryland to a handful of names.
Shortly after the new rules went into effect, trainer Bob Beall sent his brilliant springer Dave's Friend to the track for a workout and -- to his dismay -- the gelding finished it with blood streaming from his nostrils.
Beall was boiling with frustration. His horse had a physical problem; a medication existed that could cure that specific problem. Yet because the new Maryland rules said a horse had to bleed after a race to qualify as a bleeder, the trainer was forbidden to help Dave's Friend.
So Beall went to court. His attorney argued that the Commission had acted unreasonably and had created a potentially dangerous situation by forcing Dave's Friend to run without Lasix. Prince George's County Circuit Judge Robert H. Mason found this argument persuasive enough to issue a temporary injunction that would permit the gelding to run with the drug.
"If the horse did run (without Lasix)," Mason said, "there would be the additional risk of injury to the horse or to the jockey."
When subjected to any kind of logical scrutiny, this argument falls apart. In the first place, bleeding through the nostrils isn't like breaking a leg. It doesn't cause horses to fall down. It creates risks mostly for bettors, who get to tear up their tickets in disgust when a jockey pulls up a horse who has bled.
But if we accept Beall's and Mason's premise, if a horse's physical condition is such that running him poses a danger to himself, the other horses and jockeys, then surely he shouldn't be running at all.
For the better part of three centuries, horse racing has been conducted under this premise: horses with physical problems ought to be rested or retired -- not given drugs to keep them going. Until recent years, horses who bled in competition were given an enforced six-month vacation by the racing authorities. This often proved to be salubrious, and Dave's Friend may have needed a rest more than an engagement in the Terrapin Handicap at Bowie.
Horsemen, like other businessmen, do not embrace regulations that hinder their ability to earn a living. They favor unrestricted use of Lasix. Knowing this to be an impossibility now, they want any horse who has been observed bleeding at any time by any licensed veterinarian to be put on the Lasix list. This proposal seems eminently reasonable to them, as it may to other Marylanders with short memories.
That used to be the rule in Maryland, until its abuse became scandalously flagrant. Major trainers who had cozy relationships with private vets were getting the coveted "bleeder slips" for virtually all the horses in their barn -- even though only about one horse in 20 is a legitimate bleeder.
These trainers had a big edge over small-scale horsemen lacking in clout, because Lasix seemingly did a lot more than stop bleeding. It had a profound effect on some horses' form. Faced with this situation, the members of the Maryland Racing Commission finally threw up their hands in despair and allowed wide-open use of the drug by everybody, whether there was any medical justification for it or not.
The trainers are not going to get the old, abused system reinstated. But Beall's legal action is likely to persuade the Commission to liberalize some of its month-old rules.
The Commission will discuss the issue Monday, and its attorney Alan Foreman indicated that the board will give state vets more latitude in certifying horses as bleeders.
Horses will be allowed to go to a detention barn for an hour after a race and if they bleed there, the state vet will make them eligible for Lasix. Triners will be allowed to request that a state vet watch a horse's workout to see if he bleeds. With a retroactive application of this rule, Dave's Friend will probably be permitted to keep using his favorite drug.