It was ironic that Alysheba made his bid for the Triple Crown on the same weekend in New York that Dwight Gooden returned to action with the New York Mets.
In each case, a reformed drug user was trying to make good. But there was a difference. Gooden obviously knew he had a problem to overcome. Trainer Jack Van Berg and the veterinarians who had treated Alysheba pretended that depriving the colt of Lasix in the Belmont Stakes wouldn't matter.
The experts who reassured the public about Lasix's innocuousness would even object to the use of the word "drug" to describe it. "Therapeutic medication" is the approved term. For a decade, trainers and vets have claimed that the diuretic doesn't affect horses' form, despite all the evidence to the contrary. But no horse could illustrate Lasix's importance any more clearly than Alysheba. His record could be the focus of a national debate about the wisdom of allowing the use of Lasix in championship races.
Van Berg likes to say that the times of races aren't important, but one cannot understand what happened at Belmont Park on Saturday without understanding what Bet Twice's winning time of 2:28 1/5 meant. Did he run sensationally well or did everybody else run terribly?
My speed figures indicate that Bet Twice's performance in the Belmont was only slightly better than his effort in the Preakness. The 2:28 1/5 clocking was slower than the last two Belmonts run on fast tracks (Swale's 2:27 1/5 in 1984 and Caveat's 2:27 4/5 in '83).
Alysheba ran dismally to finish more than 14 lengths behind him. Since Alysheba had trained well for the Belmont and seemed ideally suited for the 1 1/2-mile distance, the absence of Lasix must have been the reason for his poor performance.
My speed figures graphically illustrate how drastically Alysheba's form has been affected by the medication. The races in boldface are the ones in which the colt used Lasix.
Breeders' Cup Juvenile 89
Hollywood Futurity 99
Allowance race 95
San Felipe Handicap 103
Blue Grass Stakes 109
Kentucky Derby 105
Alysheba's record suggests most of the pros and cons in the debate over Lasix that has raged since the medication was introduced to the racing world in the early 1970s.
Like a large percentage of contemporary racehorses, Alysheba has suffered from respiratory problems. His aren't as severe as many horses' -- he has never bled through the nostrils as Demons Begone did in the Kentucky Derby -- but they were enough to keep him from being a top-class racehorse. Lasix enabled him to fulfill his potential. While he was being treated with Lasix, he was performing consistently, so the betting public wasn't being hurt in any way. If nobody was hurt, and the horses benefit, what's wrong with Lasix?
Purists would argue that the integrity of the sport is being hurt. Lasix enabled Alysheba to win important races at the expense of rivals who didn't need pharmacological help. Because of his success, he will go to stud, mate with the best mares and beget more horses who need medication to run well.
The whole concept of improving the breed is being perverted. This is hardly a kooky minority opinion; it is one that is prevelent in thoroughbred racing and one that holds everywhere else in the world but the United States.
The Maryland Racing Commission once attempted to amend the state's Lasix rules by barring its use in Grade I stakes -- i.e., the Preakness and the Washington, D.C. International. This was a sensible move; the commission recognized that while $6,500 claimers are likely to need help to stay in action, top-class stakes horses should compete under different standards. But the proposal triggered such a hue and cry that it was dropped.
Whenever any state has tried to curb the use of Lasix, horsemen and veterinarians have fought strenuously, threatened boycotts, filed lawsuits, gone to the state legislature and otherwise suggested that they can't live without the medication. Yet they have still claimed that Lasix doesn't affect horses' performances. Not one "expert" interviewed before the Belmont said Alysheba was likely to run worse without the medication, and the public made Alysheba a 4-to-5 favorite on Saturday.
Now the public knows better. Lasix does make a difference. And it made all the difference in the Belmont Stakes.