When the Breeders' Cup is run at Gulfstream Park next week, horses coming from Kentucky will be contenders in almost every race. Bettors trying to assess them will be nagged by an unanswerable question: Was a horse's performance in Kentucky enhanced by the use of drugs that aren't permissible in other states, including Florida?
Earlier this month the Kentucky Racing Commission eased restrictions governing use of the once-banned medication clenbuterol, which aids many thoroughbreds suffering from respiratory problems and presumably improves their performance. Clenbuterol is the latest issue in the ongoing debate between the pro-drug axis of horsemen and veterinarians and the anti-drug purists who believe that racehorses shouldn't be fueled by anything but hay, oats and water.
But there is one aspect of this issue that shouldn't have to be debated: the public's right to know.
The public pays a stiff fee for the privilege of playing this game. When racetracks take roughly 20 percent from every betting dollar (compared with a bookie's 4 1/2 percent edge on a football bet or a casino's narrow advantage at a craps table), there is only one good reason for a gambler to bet on horses. He'll do so because he believes he has a chance to win with intelligent analysis. For the industry to be healthy, it must assure its customers that racing is an honest and fair gambling game.
Yet the sport's regulators frequently ignore the interests of the public, and Kentucky's clenbuterol ruling was typical. When the drug was approved for use within 72 hours of a race, no provision was made for disclosure of the horses being treated with it. The reason, said Bernie Hettel, the commission's executive director, is that clenbuterol isn't administered on the day of the race. But underlying the decision may have been a measure of contempt for the betting public. Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, told the Daily Racing Form: "A lot of people don't understand what [clenbuterol] is. So something like that could create confusion."
Of course, this argument could be made for withholding just about any piece of information from bettors. And just as people in the sport have been debating clenbuterol, another issue has arisen that involves public disclosure.
Last week a trainer at Keeneland equipped a 2-year-old with a nasal strip similar to the Breathe Right strips that human athletes use, and the horse won at 33 to 1. Florida and Oklahoma also have allowed use of the strips, and trainers have begun using them there, too, though the devices are so new that nobody knows if they are effective. Other jurisdictions are debating whether to allow the strips and what they should do about informing the public. The answer to the latter question ought to be the same as for clenbuterol. Make available all the information and let the public draw its own conclusions. The wisdom of this approach has already been demonstrated by the industry's experience with Lasix.
In the 1970s, as horsemen and veterinarians campaigned successfully for the legalization of Lasix, not a single state racing commission mandated that the names of Lasix-treated horses be published.
Trainers, vets and regulators all clung to the fiction that Lasix didn't affect horses' performance; making the information public, they said, would just confuse bettors.
Of course, Lasix does affect performance, and frequently the administration of first-time Lasix has been responsible for stunning reversals of form. Yet this vital information was the possession of insiders and the subject of constant racetrack rumors. Bettors became so hostile, so distrustful of the sport's integrity, that racing commissions eventually reversed themselves. Now all racetrack programs and past performances list Lasix information.
Has the public been confused? On the contrary. Bettors have analyzed the information, digested it and learned how to deal with Lasix as a handicapping factor. Indeed, horseplayers probably have a better understanding of the drug's effects than scientists who have conducted formal studies. Handicappers know that a horse is apt to improve the first time he gets Lasix, and possibly the second time. Thereafter his form is stabilized and the drug ceases to be a factor. Lasix is most helpful to speed horses who may have faltered because they were hindered by a respiratory problem.
The principal effect of publicizing Lasix information has been to demystify the drug. Instead of viewing it with paranoia, bettors now look upon Lasix as matter-of-factly as they do blinkers or other pieces of horses' equipment.
Horseplayers would like the sport's regulators to treat other issues as they grudgingly dealt with Lasix.
Tell us which horses are going to be racing with a nasal strip. Tell us who has been treated with clenbuterol. We'll figure out its impact. Don't worry about confusing us.