The 122nd Belmont Stakes might not generate much interest or excitement, but it has produced a lot of moralizing and pontificating.
Saturday's race has fallen flat because of the absence of Preakness winner Summer Squall. He is a bleeder, and he wouldn't be allowed to use Lasix in New York, the last state in which the anti-bleeding drug is banned. Proponents of the medication say New York's antiquated rules have wrecked this Belmont, and will continue to drive top-class horses out of the state. A headline in the Los Angeles Times declared: "New York's Ban on Lasix Tarnishes Triple Crown" -- a typical sentiment from a pro-Lasix state.
But most New Yorkers see themselves as the last bastion of rectitude in the sport. Paul Moran, columnist for the Long Island newspaper Newsday, eloquently summed up the New York position: "Racing's drug dependency, like any substance-abuse problem, has become an embarrassment to the industry . . . It is to New York's credit that the Belmont stands as a huge obstacle to a drug-dependent horse winning American racing's most coveted title. Winning the Triple Crown on medication is not what racing is about, although the use of drugs has become so deeply ingrained in American racing that no amount of pejorative evidence is likely to loosen its hold."
Indeed, New York is a worthy example for the racing industry to study.
As a bettor, fan and journalist, I have grappled with the Lasix issue for many years, and can recite a long list of arguments against the drug. Lasix can affect the form of horses -- even nonbleeders -- dramatically. Lasix may be used as a mask for illegal drugs. Lasix has tarnished the image of the sport in the eyes of the general public. I believe too that the economic arguments of the pro-Lasix forces, that horsemen would take a terrible beating if they couldn't race bleeders, are essentially bogus.
Yet there is one piece of evidence in favor of Lasix that may negate all these arguments. That evidence comes from the example of New York racing. Even though they are supposedly drug-free, the New York tracks have the most blatant drug problem in America. If this is what we get when Lasix is banned, then we ought to keep it.
It is generally supposed that many trainers and veterinarians in New York employ some substitute for Lasix. Two trainers of top-class horses with a bleeding problem have told me that they were concerned about going to New York, but were assured by veterinarians or other trainers: Don't worry. You'll be taken care of.
But the presumed existence of prohibited anti-bleeding medications is the least of New York's problems. For years, certain trainers in New York have possessed the ability to transform horses overnight in a fashion that defies the laws of nature. Before he was caught for a drug "positive," Oscar Barrera was regularly improving horses by 10 or 20 lengths after he claimed them. Peter Ferriola -- who wound up getting caught with three drug violations -- performed similar feats. He once claimed a horse named Fugie for $25,000 and promptly sent him out to run six furlongs in 1:08 and break a track record.
And there are plenty of others whom New York bettors matter-of-factly describe as "juice trainers." It is not uncommon that a trainer who was totally unknown a month or two earlier will suddenly become one of the leading trainers in New York; then, just as suddenly, return to obscurity.
I play the horses in many parts of the country, and New York is the only place where I have seen so much suspicion and so much evidence of illicit drug use. Do trainers there feel that as long as any medication, even something as innocuous as Lasix, is prohibited, they might as well go all the way and use the equivalent of rocket fuel?
Because I view this sport principally from the viewpoint of a horseplayer, I look at the medication issue from the way it affects handicapping and betting. I used to despise Lasix because it played havoc with horses' form, and because it was so hard to get information about its use. (To their everlasting discredit, the horsemen and vets who pushed for the drug's legalization resisted making public the names of horses treated with it.)
But now virtually every track publishes the names of horses receiving Lasix. The Daily Racing Form may be preparing to put a Lasix symbol in its past performances, which would eliminate confusion when horses are shipped from track to track. Lasix has become a manageable factor in handicapping. In fact, it's fairly easy to spot the horses who will improve sharply when they are treated with Lasix for the first time.
What is not manageable for a handicapper is the situation in New York, where handicappers can only speculate who's using what, and where suspicions about illicit drug use have corroded the whole game.
In theory, at least, the Lasix question is an extraordinarily difficult one to resolve, for it pits the practical needs of horses and horsemen against long-held ideals about the way the game ought to be played. In reality, however, the choice appears to be one between the openness of states that permit Lasix and the hypocrisy of the state that doesn't. And that's not a hard choice to make.