The Derby and Preakness winners are skipping the final leg of the Triple Crown and the Belmont is, to be kind, a bit of a dud. So, here we go again -- the hand-wringers say we need to fix the Triple Crown. Sorry, but it's not the Triple Crown that needs fixing, but the horses that run in the Triple Crown.
The existing structure of the Triple Crown, three races in five weeks at the distances of 10, 9 ½ and 12 furlongs, must not be changed. To do so would forever weaken the enormity of the challenge and cheapen any future Triple Crown sweeps. The Triple Crown Lite would be a sham.
The problem is that most modern thoroughbreds have a hard time racing three times in five weeks and that's what needs to change. The most obvious reason for the lack of durability in these animals is drugs, particularly Lasix. Is it any wonder that a horse has a hard time bouncing back after competing when every time they race they race with a drug that dehydrates them? (How would you feel after running a mile-and-a-quarter while dehydrated?)
Needless to say, every horse that ran in this year's Preakness and Kentucky Derby ran on Lasix, not to mention all the other things they still let you run on in this anything-goes sport. Unless a European shipper shows up, every horse in the Belmont field will run on Lasix. This is insanity.
Trainer Ken McPeek is one of the sport's smartest trainers. He's won a Triple Crown race and he's always knocking on the door with a good 3-year-old or two. He knows what Lasix does to a horse. And while he doesn't advocate banning drugs in all races, he says they don't belong in top-level events, particularly the Triple Crown events.
"Lasix dehydrates horses," McPeek said. "They run in the preps. Then they run in the Derby, which is obviously very stressful. Then they run in the Preakness. They're running, they're shipping and they're tired, and they've all been treated with medication. A body has to be able to carry fluids to nourish itself. Keeping a horse hydrated is nine-tenths of the battle. The Lasix takes the juice out of them. I strongly believe that Lasix is why horses can no longer make all three races."
Like everyone else, McPeek runs most everything in his barn on Lasix, including Noble's Promise, who was fifth in this year's Derby. He says the reason for the apparent hypocrisy is that he fears owners will not give him horses if he doesn't use Lasix. Throughout the sport, it is viewed not so much as an anti-bleeding medication but as an edge; to many an edge that simply can't be done without.
"I had one particular horse (Wild and Wicked) and he ran his first four career starts without Lasix," McPeek said. "He won his first three and then was fourth in the (2003) Haskell without Lasix. Well, I got chewed out by the owner because of that. He ran back in the Travers with Lasix and ran the same race. He was fourth again. After that, I got the horse taken away from me. All I was trying to do was do right by the horse and it got me fired."
After the Travers, Wild and Wicked made one more career start, finishing fourth in an allowance race in California for trainer Doug O'Neill. So much for the Lasix helping.
Maybe McPeek shouldn't have run Noble's Promise on Lasix in the Derby, but that's not the point. He shouldn't have been given the choice. While everyone else gets by fine with hay, oats and water, the United States and Canada are the only major racing countries that allow a drug that every shred of common sense says has led to unhealthier horses making fewer starts.
The Triple Crown tracks, particularly Pimlico and Belmont, should be alarmed that so many horses drop out of one race or another. The Triple Crown is one of the few things left in this sport that gets fans excited and appeals to the man on the street. The entire industry cannot afford to see it damaged.
Lasix first came into fashion in the mid-70's. In 1970, the average number of starts per runner was 10.22 a year. In 2009, it was 6.23. This cannot be a coincidence. I disagree with McPeek. Lasix, not to mention all other drugs, should be banned in all races.
For now, the place to start is in the Triple Crown. All that needs to happen is for the tracks to get together and agree that Lasix cannot be used in any of the Triple Crown races. It was done with steroids; there's no reason it can't be done with Lasix. Do that and most smart trainers wouldn't use it in the preps, either. They wouldn't want to take the risks involved with going off a drug for the most important races of a horse's career.
Do that and watch how the Triple Crown thrives.
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.