In five weeks, 20 or so of the best 3-year-old race horses in America will go into the starting gate and vie for the sport's greatest jewel, the Kentucky Derby trophy. And every one of them will be drugged.
At least that's a very safe bet. Since 2006, every horse that has raced in the Derby has had a needle stuck in them before the race and been treated with Lasix, not to mention what other sort of legal and illegal chemical cocktails their veterinarians might have loaded them up with. That's 99 Derby horses, 99 drugged Derby horses.
This is, of course, insanity, but insanity usually prevails in racing because the game lacks leadership and a backbone.
Racing Commissioners International does not have the authority to make any track or any state ban race-day medications, but it has at least put the issue back on the front burner.
That may be about to change. Racing Commissioners International, an organization that, almost out of nowhere, has started to make a lot of noise about a lot of important things. (This is the same group that called for a lifetime ban of bad-boy trainer Rick Dutrow). RCI put out a press release earlier this week calling on the racing industry and member regulators to embrace a strategy to phase out drugs and medication in horse racing. If that were to happen, the U.S. would finally be back in line with the rest of the world. Canada is the only other major racing country that allows the use of race-day drugs.
"Today, over 99% of Thoroughbred racehorses and 70% of Standard-bred racehorses have a needle stuck in them four hours before a race," RCI's new chair, William Koester, Chairman of the Ohio State Racing Commission, said in a statement. "That just does not pass the smell test with the public or anyone else except horse trainers who think it is necessary to win a race. I'm sure the decision makers at the time meant well when these drugs were permitted, however this decision has forced our jurisdictions to judge threshold levels as horsemen become more desperate to win races and has given racing a black eye."
RCI called for a five-year phase out plan that would rid U.S. racing of drugs. Racing Commissioners International does not have the authority to make any track or any state ban race-day medications, but it has at least put the issue back on the front burner and has, perhaps, woken up the sort of people who can take the next steps in getting the sport to kick its insidious drug habit.
Will anyone else or any other organization now step forward and join RCI in calling for an end to the use of drugs in racing? That's the key question and it will be answered by groups like the Breeders' Cup, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and people like the heads of the racing commissions in the top racing states of Kentucky, California and New York. Something big, bigger than a press release from RCI, needs to happen now, something to really build up momentum for the anti-drug cause.
And the Breeders' Cup is exactly the organization that should lead the way. Just announce that starting next year no horse will be allowed to race in the Breeders' Cup on any medications. A grandfather clause is fine. You can allow any horse that raced on Lasix in 2011 to continue to run on the drug, but no one else. The Breeders' Cup has nothing to lose. There's not a trainer in America who would decline a spot in the Breeders' Cup because they'd have to run drug free. And if they do, too bad.
The Breeders' Cup can be a cornerstone of the effort to clean up American racing. TOBA can follow. They control the grading of stakes races and they can declare that no race will receive graded status if drugs are allowed. They've already done just that with steroids, so how hard would it be to extend the policy to all drugs?
Then let's get California, New York and Kentucky to come onboard together and announce that drugs in those states will be phased out over the course of three or four years. Get those states in line and everyone else who matters will follow.
The opposition will come from horsemen, horsemen's groups and veterinarians.
The veterinarians you can understand -- they make fortunes peddling and injecting this stuff.
It is the horsemen's opposition that is so curious and misguided. Since legal drugs have come onto the scene horses have never been more fragile or run less often. There has to be a connection between the two. Owners would make more money if their horses were healthier and ran more often and it's common sense that they would do just that if they weren't always being pumped full of drugs. It is the owners, especially those who are paying outrageous vet bills month after month, who should be behind a drug ban more so than anyone else.
Kudos to RCI. At least one group has the guts to stand up and say the madness must come to an end.
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.