The prospective rematch of Alysheba and Bet Twice in the Haskell Invitational on Aug. 1 already is generating widespread interest and controversy.
The Monmouth Park race has brought into sharp focus the diverse, contradictory rules about the use of medication in America's major racing states. It has triggered calls for some uniform national standards to govern Lasix. It has generated such passion that Bob Levy and Jimmy Croll, the owner and trainer, respectively, of Bet Twice, were threatening to skip the race in their home state because New Jersey rules will permit Alysheba to be treated with Lasix.
New Jersey has relatively stringent rules governing the use of Lasix; a state veterinarian must observe a horse bleeding within an hour after a race to certify him as a bleeder. Alysheba doesn't meet this standard; he's not even a bleeder, according to trainer Jack Van Berg. Even so, he will get to use the drug for the following reason. Pay close attention.
Alysheba qualified for Lasix use in California, where the requirements for qualifying are rather lax. (The approval of a private veterinarian is good enough.) Maryland accepts California's certification, so Alysheba was allowed to use the medication when he beat Bet Twice in the Preakness.
When Alysheba raced without the drug in the Belmont Stakes, however, he lost his eligibity to use Lasix in Maryland. If a horse races without Lasix, he can't use it again in Maryland unless he has bled again in the interim.
But New Jersey still accepts Maryland's approval of a horse for Lasix use, and because Alysheba had the medication for the Preakness, he will be allowed to use it for the Haskell. That should give him an edge in the $500,000 race, because he beat Bet Twice in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, when he was treated with Lasix. It's no wonder Levy has been blasting the inconsistencies in the New Jersey rule, which was created to help serious bleeders.
Although the complications about Lasix use in the Haskell have been making the headlines, they are not much different from the conditions that trainers, owners and bettors face regularly when a horse is shipped from state to state.
Earlier this year I wrote about a horse named Glaros who was sent from California to Florida for a stakes race where he looked like a cinch. Hialeah's racing program said he would be treated with Lasix, as he had been in the West, but on the afternoon of the race, the state veterinarian informed trainer Tom Skiffington that Glaros didn't meet Florida's criteria to get the medication. Unwary bettors lost their money; Glaros ran terribly and bled during the race; Skiffington was understandably exasperated. "The rules just don't make any sense," he said.
Virtually everyone in the thoroughbred industry agrees in principle that it would be ideal for states to adopt a uniform set of medication rules. Even so, this may never happen. "The difficulty with this issue," said Tom Aronson of the American Horse Council, "is that ideals conflict so much with reality."
The reality is that most horses have respiratory problems that can be helped by Lasix, and most trainers desperately want to be able to use the drug. Horsemen have successfully fought most efforts to restrict its use, so there's no realistic likelihood of achieving uniformity by tightening the rules.
If I were the czar of American racing, I would propose the following compromise that would trade unrestricted use of Lasix in most races in exchange for an outright ban in Grade I stakes. Get rid of all the red tape, the requirements that veterinarians certify a horse as a bleeder and permit trainers to treat an animal with Lasix if they see fit -- as long as they do it in a consistent fashion. In practice, a trainer determined to get his horse approved for Lasix can usually do it, anyway. Exhibit A is Alysheba, who is not a bleeder but has been using Lasix from coast to coast. The Daily Racing Form should indicate in its past performances when a horse has been treated with Lasix. From the standpoint of bettors, Lasix is a source of confusion mostly when they don't know when a horse has been treated with it, and this usually happens when the animal is shipped from one track to another. The Racing Form is a quasi-official part of the thoroughbred industry anyway, so it could be the official recordkeeper of Lasix use. Lasix should be banned from Grade I races -- championship events like the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races. The drug's proponents can argue that if Lasix is a benign, useful, unobjectionable treatment for 99 percent of the horse population, it should be used for the other 1 percent as well.
However, the czar of racing would answer that two different standards may apply. Medication may be necessary to keep run-of-the-mill thoroughbreds in action so they can fill our races and keep the game going.
But our championship events serve a loftier purpose: They determine our best racehorses so those thoroughbreds can go to stud and propagate the species. And we shouldn't want to beget more and more generations of drug-dependent horses.
An ideal world would be filled with horses like Bet Twice, not horses like Alysheba, so we focus our attention on the sport instead of the fine print governing the use of medication.