ARCADIA, Calif. — On a day when Royal Delta delivered a brilliant performance to defeat an all-star field in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic, one of the prime topics of conversation at Santa Anita was not about horses. It was about the drug Lasix.
Although the use of Lasix has been an established part of American racing since the 1970s, the Breeders’ Cup on Friday instituted a bold change that has stirred intense controversy throughout the U.S. thoroughbred industry. It prohibited the use of Lasix in its five races for 2-year-olds as a precursor to a ban in all Breeders’ Cup events beginning in 2013.
A significant majority of U. S. horsemen object to what the Breeders’ Cup has done. The diuretic controls the tendency of horses to bleed in the lungs after exertion — a common phenomenon. Most trainers believe strongly in its benefits and use it routinely. “Eighty to 90 percent of my horses bleed,” said trainer Graham Motion, “and the bad [bleeders] . . . need Lasix.”
In recent years, some prominent owners and breeders have made efforts to stop the widespread use of drugs in U.S. racing. They argue that most countries ban the race-day use of Lasix, and they point to statistics showing that those countries don’t have epidemics of bleeding.
The anti-drug forces have clout within the Breeders’ Cup organization, which had its own reasons to get rid of Lasix. The Breeders’ Cup sees itself as an international championship, encourages European participation and is sensitive to European attitudes — such as their opposition to the liberal drug policies in the United States. The Lasix ban, said Craig Fravel, the Breeders’ Cup president, represents an effort to conduct racing “under international standards.”
People on both sides of the argument will examine the Lasix-free 2-year-old races — three of them on Friday’s card, two on Saturday — to judge how the ban may have affected the races and horses’ performance.
The small fields for some of the 2-year-old events caught everybody’s attention. The Juvenile Fillies — whose $2 million purse is exceeded by only three races in North America — attracted only eight entrants, equaling the smallest field in its history. The Juvenile, offering a $2 million purse Saturday, drew only nine. And although there ought to be a small army of 2-year-olds with good form at six furlongs, only five started in the $500,000 Juvenile Sprint. One owner, New Yorker Mike Repole , declared that he was boycotting the Breeders’ Cup as a protest against the Lasix ban, but there was no way to know how many possible starters were missing for this reason.
Fravel anticipated — or hoped — that the absence of Lasix wouldn’t affect the outcomes, and that superior horses would win regardless. This is what happened in the three 2-year-old races:
●Beholder, after winning her prior start by 11 lengths when treated with Lasix, led all the way to capture the Juvenile Fillies, holding off the favorite Executiveprivilege by a length. The result was perfectly logical, and Beholder certainly didn’t suffer from a lack of medication.
●Merit Man was the heaviest favorite of the entire day, but the 1-to-2 shot was outdueled in the stretch run of the Juvenile Sprint by Hightail, the longest shot in the field. The upset gave legendary trainer Wayne Lukas his 19th Breeders’ Cup victory, but did the absence of Lasix have something to do with Merit Man’s failure?
●The French 2-year-old Flotilla accelerated powerfully in the stretch to give Europe its first victory in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. Unlike his American rivals, Flotilla had raced Lasix-free throughout his short career.
There is no way to draw any meaningful conclusions about Lasix from such evidence. But as the Lasix ban is applied to the entire Breeders’ Cup, bettors and horsemen will always be guessing about its effect on individual horses; when horses run after competing in the Breeders’ Cup, the impact of Lasix will become a question again.
If the Breeders’ Cup ban represented the start of a move to drug-free racing in America, it would serve an important purpose — but this is never going to happen. Medication rules are set by state racing commissions, not by any national governing body.
With Lasix permitted, virtually every horse in the Breeders’ Cup was treated with it (including the Europeans) and they competed on a level playing field. Lasix was a non-issue. Now it has become a distraction.
There shouldn’t have been any distractions from the racing action on the first day of the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita. The $2 million Ladies’ Classic drew one of the strongest fields of fillies in its history with three Eclipse Award winners (two of them undefeated) in the lineup.
Royal Delta, the defending champion in this event, was the favorite, but few people expected her to win the way she did. Against a field that included two brilliantly fast rivals, jockey Mike Smith let her go to the lead and set a lightning-fast pace: a half-mile in 45.81 seconds. She disposed of the speedsters, then repelled the stretch-runners, winning by 1½ lengths over the previously undefeated My Miss Aurelia.
The fact that all eight fillies in the field ran on Lasix — as they had for most of their careers — hardly detracted from the spectacle. It’s hard to imagine that if this were 2013, and they were all Lasix-free, that the race could have been any better.
For previous columns by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/