Racing's drug dependency, like any substance-abuse problem, has become an embarrassment to the industry. Lasix has turned the current Triple Crown into the Medicine Hat, and perhaps under the sport's current drug-sodden circumstances the degeneration of its showcase series was inevitable.
The classic American test of equine talent, scope and stamina has crumbled this year beneath the weight of the industry's stance on Lasix. The Triple Crown of the '90s might become a series of dashes from one state's permissive medication rule to another's. For the first time, the Triple Crown series has fallen apart prematurely because of New York's ban on Lasix. Without Lasix, Summer Squall will not compete in the Belmont Stakes; without the Preakness winner, the race has no prospect of a showdown.
In one respect, it is unfortunate that the Belmont Stakes has been rendered inconsequential. In another, in light of recent studies that show Lasix enhances thoroughbred performance, 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.
"If it were my decision, I'd make Lasix legal everywhere," said Cot Campbell, managing partner of the 28-member syndicate that owns Summer Squall. Thankfully, it is not his decision.
"Without Lasix there wouldn't be racing (at Pimlico) today, or at Charles Town, Churchill Downs or Arlington Park. Do you have a list of race tracks?" said Summer Squall's trainer, Neil Howard. But those tracks had racing for decades before Lasix was introduced.
The pervasive spread of Lasix, illegal in every other nation in which racing is conducted, throughout the United States has been controversial since the drug was introduced 15 years ago. But recent findings cast new light upon the use of the drug. If it enhances performance, it should be banned. It has masking properties, as does any powerful diuretic, capable of concealing the use of other performance-enhancing drugs. And it is commonly and legally used in all the sport's most prestigious races run outside New York.
The results of these races must be considered skeptically; it is difficult to consider any Lasix-using horse that fails to win at least one significant race without the drug in New York for a postseason championship.
Running horses on Lasix is no more acceptable than allowing human athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs. For the sake of its own integrity, both real and perceived, racing must find some mechanism, if no more than a consensus from racing commissions, to ban Lasix at least from all graded stakes.
If the number of horses entered in overnight races is of more concern to race track operators than the integrity of the results, then they must compensate at least partially by ensuring that their most important races are won by horses physically fit to claim championships.
The argument offered by many horsemen is that Lasix can only allow a horse to perform up to its potential. But on a given day a horse must compete as well as it is able on a level field. Chemically produced optimum performance is artificial, of no value in determining championships, bogus.