Horse racing has an extraordinary talent for putting its worst foot forward -- or tripping in the attempt. After California Chrome, for example, won two-thirds of the Triple Crown, instead of elation over the possibility of an historic sweep, there was concern because he might not be permitted to wear a nasal strip in the Belmont Stakes. That was the follow-up focus, a nasal strip. After Bayern won the Breeders' Cup Classic, instead of appreciation for an outstanding performance, there was outrage over one of the most inept stewards' decisions in recent memory. That was the follow-up focus, the inaction of a purblind troika.
And so it goes in racing. The fearful suspicion here is that whenever a horse finally sweeps the Triple Crown, the sport will find some creative way to muck it up.
This year, the sport often has seemed more interested in gaining sympathy than credibility; maybe that's why it has become so adept at public displays of self-flagellation and hand-wringing. With soft tones that seem intended to placate feral dogs, the sport rushes to apologize for almost everything, and yet it stammers and stutters and hesitates to tell its good stories or describe progress or dispel unfavorable impressions. Horse racing can be as dysfunctional as government. And like government, the sport even goes out of its way to create negative impressions, as in having yet another rife-with-acrimony-and-innuendo discussion about furosemide, more commonly known as Lasix or Salix, the bleeding medication that's allowed, while regulated, on race-day. But should it be allowed? Whether you think it's important or not, and if only because some people won't let it go, that's the question that has knocked the sport into a morass of misunderstanding and negativity.
Horse racing can be as dysfunctional as government. And like government, the sport even goes out of its way to create negative impressions.
People on both sides of the argument launch insults and accusations as though tossing so many bombshells, all of which leaves casual observers with the impression that horse racing is determined to destroy itself, one way or the other. And like carrier pigeons the media hurriedly flap their wings in a fowl rush to spread the news. (As a media member, I must accept, yes, a share of the blame.) Fans, regulators, owners, trainers, turf writers, experts, ersatz experts, leaders, so-called leaders, veterinarians and even horsemen's groups have taken sides. Everybody believes only what's necessary for his own comfort, to validate and support preconceptions, and disregards everything else. It's a gummed up imbroglio, a muddled mess.
No less an authority than Larry Bramlage, one of the most respected equine veterinarians in the country, seemed caught in a maelstrom of cognitive dissonance when he told the Thoroughbred Club of America in September: "Furosemide is valuable to the horse when racing." At the same time, though, he argued against race-day use because "the continual drumbeat of journalists, most of whom truly have no idea what they are talking about, will become a death knell."
In other words, Lasix is valuable to the health of a racehorse, but nevertheless should be eliminated because of the mistaken impressions of some ignorant but outspoken reporters and columnists. And who created those impressions? The industry itself, of course.
What's crazy about all this is that valid arguments support both positions, that science can seem to favor one and then the other, and, most of all, that the people on both sides want exactly the same thing: what's best for the horses and the sport. Yes, even though each side might attempt to portray the other as villainous, the reality is that their goals are the same, the health and progress for horses and racing. Does anybody think the people who argue for allowing Lasix don't care for their horses and, in many cases, have genuine affection for them? Does anybody really think the people who argue against Lasix cavalierly disregard the threat of internal bleeding and are willing to see their horses suffer a pulmonary hemorrhage?
Instead of continuing their Pyrrhic squabble, couldn't the sides at least agree to table the argument until the science becomes more conclusive? Or, even better, can't they compromise? Wouldn't it be possible to attach weight to the use of furosemide? A horse that runs without Lasix could receive, say, a four-pound break in the weights. Couldn't that satisfy, at least to some degree, both sides? In the Kentucky Derby, for example, horses racing without Lasix would get to carry 122 pounds while those using the medication would have to carry 126.
And why has the sport, specifically New York and Kentucky regulators, been so slow to report the findings of the investigations into allegations made in the famed PETA video? Remember that, the 9-1/2-minute video produced over four months in 2013 by a PETA agent posing as a hot walker for trainer Steve Asmussen? When the video went public in March, many quickly jumped to the worst conclusions. It was a time for manic piling on. Most outrageous was the proposal that because of the video Asmussen should stay away from the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, a suggestion that only gave the video some momentary credibility. The New York Times said the video "showed widespread mistreatment of horses," an assertion, as it turned out, that reflected either ignorance or disingenuosness. And the pigeons flew. Sanctimony and hypocrisy became a popular daily double. But, shockingly enough, no industry leaders came forward to point out that the video was pure propaganda, heavily edited and spliced. If PETA actually believed, as the video asserted, that death and abuse were commonplace, then why did it sit on the information for months and wait until March to release it, perfectly timed, it would seem, to derail Asmussen's nomination to the sport's Hall of Fame? Or is it possible that not even PETA believed its disinformation?
Anyway, in the aftermath of all that, Kentucky and New York called for investigations. That was nearly eight months ago. Clark Brewster, an attorney for Asmussen, said the trainer instructed him to cooperate fully and turn over everything to authorities. Investigators have interviewed everybody connected with the Asmussen operation, from owners to hot walkers.
And so what are the findings? One way or the other, the sport should conspicuously and swiftly resolve this. Will the findings get as many headlines as the allegations? Will the pigeons fly so enthusiastically and quickly? After such a rush to judgment, shouldn't there be an equal rush to justice?