In the view of Jerry Fanning, "Maryland is 20 years behind the times." The trainer thinks it is absurd that Desert Wine cannot be treated with Lasix before the Preakness, when the drug would prevent his colt from bleeding and possibly even choking during the race.
To many other people here, it seems absurd that the medication rules governing the Preakness should not be consistent with those for the Kentucky Derby, where Desert Wine did run with the aid of Lasix. "In baseball," Pimlico General Manager Chick Lang said, "you have three strikes or four balls, no matter where you're playing. In racing it's different, and it's a shame."
After the fiascos that have marred other runnings of the Preakness--the malfunctioning electric timer in 1973, the stewards' buffoonery involving Genuine Risk in 1980, the unfair track bias in 1982--there is a widespread presumption that the Lasix imbroglio offers further proof of Maryland's bushness.
But the presumption is wrong. Officials here don't need to apologize for their stringent medication rules; the people attacking those rules have short memories and shortsighted vision.
When Lasix was legalized here a decade ago, veterinarians and trainers hailed it as a remedy for bleeders--nothing more, nothing less. But because the names of horses treated with it were made public, Marylanders soon became dubious about these assurances.
Why were 80 percent of horses being given Lasix when no more than 20 percent of all horses are bleeders? We saw the reason: horses often improved dramatically after they were treated with Lasix, sometimes giving performances of which they had never previously been capable. The drug evidently helped animals with a variety of respiratory problems. And it might have been diluting or masking the presence of illegal drugs in horses' systems.
Eventually, the overuse and abuse of Lasix generated such adverse public reaction in Maryland that the commission abolished its use entirely. Later, the board relented and allowed the drug to be used in the most extreme cases, when the state veterinarian has seen a horse bleed through the nostrils after a race.
Determined to crack down on Lasix, Maryland officials could not reasonably allow horses to be treated with the drug here just because they had qualified for it in other states. If they had, a Maryland horse would only have to take a short van ride to Delaware, where the rules are more liberal, to get on the Lasix program.
In California and Kentucky, the experience with legal medication has been much different from Maryland's. Their rules remain very liberal.
In California, a horse can be certified as a bleeder if an examination of his throat and lungs shows even a few flecks of blood, which is not uncommon. In Kentucky, any trainer can give Lasix to any horse for any reason. But there has been no adverse public reaction because the public isn't told which horses are getting the drug, and because the bettors in both those states are considerably more docile than Maryland's.
Of course, horsemen love the systems in California and Kentucky, because they bow to their interests while ignoring the public's interest. The California horsemen are so smug that they argue that their system is perfect. It doesn't bother them that the public had no right to know that Desert Wine bled in the Santa Anita Derby, that he was treated with Lasix when he got to Kentucky and that the drug apparently accounted for the abrupt change in the horse's form.
Horsemen argue that it is a grave economic hardship on owners to rest a bleeder for months, or not run him at all, when they could so easily treat him with Lasix. "When you've got owners losing as much money as they do," Fanning said, "you're supposed to use modern technology (to keep their horses running). If anybody treated horses today like they did 40 years ago, they wouldn't win many races."
These economic arguments for Lasix and other medications are, in fact, slightly spurious. Regardless of drug rules, the size of the pie that horsemen will divide remains the same. When the rules are stringent, purse money is distributed to horses who are fit and healthy instead of those who need pharmaceutical assistance to run well. That's what improving the breed is supposed to be all about.
Is it a terrible anachronism that the Preakness trophy will go to the fittest, strongest and fastest horse instead of one who could conceivably bleed, choke and collapse if he didn't have his drug of choice? If so, Maryland ought to stay 20 years behind the times.