Two days of high-level meetings on the future of drugs in racing are now in the books and what do we have? An agreement to keep talking.
The International Summit on Race Day Medication, EIPH and the Racehorse, held Monday and Tuesday at Belmont, ended with a whimper when it was announced that there wouldn't be any announcements. At least meaty ones.
Of course, we don't know everything that went on at Belmont because the media and the public were banned from sitting in on the second day's session. This came just a day after a public relations expert named John Della Volpe told the group they had to be open and honest with the public.
So this bunch doesn't get it when it comes to transparency and being forthcoming with a skeptical public, but public relations was not supposed to be its forte or the core of its mission.
"This is the era of transparency, the era of sunlight," Della Volpe was quoted as saying by the Thoroughbred Times' Frank Angst. "Consumers expect and demand authenticity and transparency."
OK, so this bunch doesn't get it when it comes to transparency and being forthcoming with a skeptical public, but public relations was not supposed to be its forte or the core of its mission. Rather, it was supposed to make some serious headway toward tackling the thorny problem of our horses being allowed to race on legal drugs, most notably Lasix. Instead, it meekly agreed to pick up the discussion in late July.
The reasons to ban Lasix are obvious. Its use is out of hand and goes against the grain of what is done everywhere else in the world. That horses have to have it to race simply isn't supported by the evidence. Since Lasix was legalized the average amount of starts made each year by horses in training had dropped dramatically. If anything, there is anecdotal evidence that Lasix has created the most unhealthy, least durable collection of horses ever seen in modern times.
And it has created a public relations nightmare for the sport. Rightly or wrongly, the man on the street thinks the sport is filled with doped-up runners who are fueled not by hay, oats and water but by illicit drugs. This is how CBS News led a report on the eve of the Belmont: "Twelve horses are entered in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, and it's a safe bet that every one will be injected with a performance-enhancing drug before the race."
News reports like these are among the reasons the industry can't afford to hem and haw. The sport is under intense scrutiny, not only from the public and the media, but also from the federal government. The government is prepared to come down hard on a sport that some key lawmakers believe includes widespread legal and illegal doping. The only way to fend off the government is to be proactive, now.
Instead, we keep hearing that these are complex issues that require serious thought and discussion and can't be solved over night.
Sorry, but the sport can't afford a "journey that's going to involve a lot of people over a long period of time."
"The summit represents a new beginning, a new opportunity to begin a journey that's going to involve a lot of people over a long period of time," said Dr. Scott Palmer, who was involved in Tuesday's super-secret, closed-door talks. "The problems we are facing have been created over many, many years and it's not something that can be solved in a two-day summit."
Sorry, but the sport can't afford a "journey that's going to involve a lot of people over a long period of time." In fact, the whole thing is quite simple.
It was racing commissions and racing commissioners who gave the sport legalized drugs. As well intentioned as people like Palmer and NTRA President Alex Waldrop may be, they have no authority to change anything. It has to happen at the state level and with the commissions.
Here's how: the racing commissioners from the three Triple Crown states (New York, Maryland and Kentucky) plus the people from the California Horse Racing Board need to sit down and decide what they want to do. If they decide they want to get rid of legalized race-day medications, just do it. With the four most important racing states on board, others will likely follow. If they don't, so be it. These are the four states that matter most.
To protect the betting public, which can't be asked to wager on drug-free races that may become complete crapshoots when drugs are taken out of the mix, any horse already running on Lasix will be allowed to race on it for the rest of their careers.
We'll even allow a period of readjustment, so the ban will not begin until Jan. 1, 2013. Since every horse in every race in North America already runs on Lasix, we're essentially talking about, to start, banning Lasix in 2-year-old races only. Each subsequent crop that comes to the race must run drug-free.
It's not that complicated and doesn't require a whole new series of summits or meeting. In fact, it's a no-brainer. Do it.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.