Imagine a run-up to the Triple Crown that didn't include the Florida Derby or the Fountain of Youth or the Louisiana Derby. Such an upheaval to so traditional a road is unlikely, of course, but if it did happen, if an imperative forced the highway to take a dramatic detour, then after a few shocking moments and a few more aftershocks it would probably be good for racing.
Yes, good for racing, salubrious even. The sport must make dramatic changes. Wagering on horse racing has declined 2.41 percent from a year ago, according to Equibase; purses are down, too. The stakeholders must shake off their inertia and embrace change. Racetracks can't operate like little fiefdoms, nor states like islands. In the struggle to achieve uniform medication rules, Churchill Downs could do the sport a great service if it would strip the Florida Derby, the Fountain of Youth and the Louisiana Derby of all their precious Kentucky Derby qualifying points, and, even better, nullify the Lecomte, Holy Bull, Tampa Bay Derby and Risen Star Stakes, too, along with, don't forget, the Delta Downs Jackpot.
Such extremes probably wouldn't be necessary. A warning might suffice, making clear that all of Florida's and Louisiana's Derby preps could be erased from the ruddy Derby roadmap, effective in, perhaps, 2016. That warning would allow their advocates a little time to recover from apoplexy and attempt to do something about it.
And that, of course, would be the actual goal, their doing something about it. The threat of such a seismic shift would contribute to the longterm health of the sport if it forced Florida and Louisiana to adopt, at the very least, the Controlled Therapeutic Medication Schedule of the model rules recommended by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and the Association of Racing Commissioners International. Keep in mind that these model rules developed by veterinarians and scientists are based on years of research and piles of data, not on horsemen's hankering. The rules are strict, but also organic, incorporating the latest findings and analysis. And the rules' adoption is positively essential if racing is to prosper, for they're the foundation of the uniform rules that the sport desperately needs.
For any number of reasons, one of them being that Churchill owns the Fair Grounds racetrack in New Orleans, it's a wild idea, linking the Kentucky Derby points to uniform rules. Then again, it's even wilder, perhaps crazy, that there are no nationally uniform medication rules, and that's really the point.
In the last year, horse racing has made significant, even great, progress towards the adoption of uniform medication rules. As a result, in the next year the number of states operating under the model medication rules will increase from four to 16. But, most notably, six states have yet to adopt the rules -- Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio. They're stuck in a morass of bureaucracy and, in some cases, stupidity. Churchill Downs could encourage them out of that morass, as could the American Graded Stakes Committee.
Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio seem stuck in a morass of bureaucracy and, in some cases, stupidity. Churchill Downs could encourage them out of that morass, as could the American Graded Stakes Committee.
The American Graded Stakes Committee has added eight graded stakes for 2015 and two of those, the Sweetest Chant at Gulfstream Park and the Penn Mile at Penn National, are run in states that have not adopted the model medication rules. But Pennsylvania "should be very close to fully implementing" the model guidelines, according to Dionne Benson, who's both a veterinarian and an attorney and so ideally qualified as the Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. And in Florida, she said, horsemen have endorsed the Controlled Therapeutic Medication Schedule; they're not to blame. The obstacle to fully adopting the rules in Florida, she said, is largely legislative. Florida and Pennsylvania, in other words, have made significant progress in the general direction of uniform medication rules.
Oklahoma, on the other hand, has not. Oklahoma allows for the race-day use of phenylbutazone at a level that's 2-1/2 times what the RMTC recommends in its model rules. In addition, Oklahoma permits the use of another pain-killer, flunixin (Banamine), and of two corticosteroids. Flagrantly and ponderously out of step with the progress throughout the sport, Oklahoma has the most permissive medication rules in the country. It's a level of permissiveness that not only indulges some people's inclination to rely more on medication than horsemanship, but also threatens to harm the bettors, the sport and, most important, the jockeys and horses. Regulators and horsemen there damage the sport and abuse its fans by not embracing medication reform and, more specifically, the model rules.
And so perhaps it's not coincidental that the Springboard Mile is not among the eight races that in 2015 will be graded for the first time. Will Take Charge, the runner-up in the 2012 Springboard Mile, went on to be the next year's champion 3-year-old. And at least the first three finishers in Sunday's renewal at Remington Park in Oklahoma City -- Bayerd, Shotgun Kowboy and High Noon Rider -- appear to be very promising. Based on the quality of its competitors, the race is on the cusp of being graded. But based on the recalcitrance of Oklahoma's medication policies, neither the Springboard Mile nor any other stakes in Oklahoma will be graded anytime soon, even though Remington Park itself has publicly and officially supported the model rules.
Based on the quality of its competitors, the race is on the cusp of being graded. But based on the recalcitrance of Oklahoma's medication policies, neither the Springboard Mile nor any other stakes in Oklahoma will be graded anytime soon, even though Remington Park itself has publicly and officially supported the model rules.
Clearly the American Graded Stakes Committee has paired progress on medication reform with grading. Grading stakes is a powerful tool, and in this regard the committee is using it wisely for the amelioration of the sport. The message is that no racing jurisdiction can prosper as an island. The next step would be to downgrade existing graded stakes in states that have not adopted the model rules. Pennsylvania, you and your Penn Mile have a year. Florida, you have a year before the Donn and the Gulfstream Park Handicap slip to Grade 2.
But in some jurisdictions, Churchill Downs has an even more powerful goad, those cherished Kentucky Derby points that determine who'll be in the roseate field. Would Florida lawmakers continue to loll in their morass if their derby were about to be relegated? That's a question Churchill could ask for the good of the sport -- might even enjoy asking.