Drug war of the clueless

Dire economic issues important to the nation and the world hang like a mushroom cloud over Washington, D.C. The body count continues in much of the tornado-ravaged south. Much of the world is in some flavor of deadly turmoil. Murderous despots run amuck. But none of this is sufficient to prevent an opportunistic member of the Congress from taking advantage of the stage provided by the Kentucky Derby.

This is low-hanging fruit. Twenty 3-year-olds prepare for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to seize racing's brass ring at Churchill Downs on Saturday. Admittedly, there have been more compelling Derby fields, but these are the cards dealt to the Triple Crown of 2011. The nation and a good portion of the world will turn toward Louisville and raise a glass. Racing has longstanding, intertwined issues. Opportunity knocks.

According to the Jockey Club statistics the percentage of total starters with Lasix increased from about 45 percent in 1991 to nearly 95 percent in 2010.

Against this backdrop it may not be lost in the pre-Derby hyperbole and cacophony that most, if not all, of those in the year's longest post parade will have been treated with Lasix, the most familiar and widely used medication used to prevent the illusion of pulmonary bleeding in the most permissive and widely abused medication environment on the planet. Others may have the added benefit of "Lasix adjunct," a nebulous term that embraces other anti-bleeder medication permitted in Kentucky. Some will parade to the gate on the crutch of corticosteroids, which are also legal though they mask injury and eventually bring about joint deterioration. Muffled beneath a chorus of "My Old Kentucky Home" is the sound of the rest of the racing world laughing.

By any standard, this is an embarrassment to American racing, the conduct of which, according to many in the training and veterinary communities, is apparently impossible absent the grotesque abuse of a diuretic that others believe, along with a trove of other medications legal for racing in this country and Canada but nowhere else in the world, is the root cause of the widely documented and lamented trend in recent years toward chronic infirmity in the American thoroughbred.

It appears, hopefully, that the medication pendulum in at least some quarters of American racing has begun to change direction after a backward arc more than three-decades-long -- a call to sanity not quiet clarion but audible nevertheless.

At the outset of the Lasix era, horses were approved to race on the substance only after having bled from the nostrils during competition. The bleeding, in most jurisdictions, was required to have been observed by the stewards. Creeping relaxation of restrictions over more than three decades has led to gross abuse. Securing approval for Lasix is no more complicated nowadays than ordering French fries at McDonald's. According to the Jockey Club statistics the percentage of total starters with Lasix increased from about 45 percent in 1991 to nearly 95 percent in 2010. This is a troubling statistic, particularly in an age of hand-wringing and breast beating over the fragile nature of the modern racehorse, which is quite possibly the result of the overuse and abuse of legal medication. It is a reasonable assumption that 95 percent of American thoroughbreds are not certified bleeders in need of mitigating medication and the impression remains that permissive medication rules afford cover to those trainers and veterinarians inclined to play the game beyond the restrictions of current testing methodology.

The call for reform, unfortunately, comes from high profile organizations that lack both great influence and regulatory authority but it's a start.

"When, on March 28, both the incoming and outgoing chairs of the Association of Racing Commissioners International called for a five-year plan to eliminate race-day medication, a possible watershed moment was presented to racing in the United States," officials of the Jockey Club said in a strongly-worded position statement issued last week. "Perhaps the decades of discussion and dissension will give way, finally, to recognition that American racing medication policies are not only out of step with an increasing number of the world's racing nations, but out of step with other major league sports in our own backyard. Regardless of the sport and regardless of the country, regulatory authorities, participants, fans and customers are growing increasingly intolerant of the use of performance-altering substances which may influence the outcome of competition."

Soon after ARCI's announcement, the statement noted, several organizations spoke up in favor of the ultimate goal of eliminating race-day medication, including the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, Keeneland Association, Breeders' Cup, Ltd., Thoroughbred Racing Associations of North America, and The Jockey Club. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, to the astonishment of many, declined to join the chorus.

Consensus, even as fleeting as it can be in the racing business, is a start on a long road toward reestablishment of sanity and the rehabilitation of the sport's heavily tarnished -- and deservedly so -- image. More troubling than racing current state of public image, however, is a new threat from Washington.

Drugs and medications are two distinctly different things and as badly as the sport is in need of medication reform, violations involving out-and-out performance enhancing drugs are relatively rare and already illegal.

Just in time to mount the stage of Derby week, Representative Edward Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican, and Democratic Senator Tom Udall, of New Mexico, are sponsoring companion bills that set out stiff penalties, including -- though they are obviously unaware of the legal gyrations necessary to actually impose such a punishment -- a permanent ban for trainers whose horses test positive for drugs. The legislation, which apparently lumps illegal drugs and therapeutic medication together without distinction, would create new provisions to the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978, which permits simulcast wagering to take place across state lines.

This is an icy slope, news as welcome within the racing community as an IRS audit notice.

Drugs and medications are two distinctly different things and as badly as the sport is in need of medication reform, violations involving out-and-out performance enhancing drugs are relatively rare and already illegal. It is highly unlikely that either Rep. Whitfield or Sen. Udall are aware of the difference and safe to assume that the other 99 members of the U.S. Senate and 437 others seated in the House of Representatives share that ignorance, not the first example of bi-partisan cluelessness demonstrated by this Congress, which is the same feckless group that, save the newly elected in 2010, passed the Obama health care law without reading the bill and spends much of its time authoring highly creative, highly partisan, incendiary rhetoric measured in sound bites.

The use of race-day medication is the issue, not the degree of cheating that would qualify as a felony, and misguided Federal involvement in what is a festering problem in racing will do nothing but complicate the issue. The impetus for reform -- a return to medication-free racing in all American jurisdictions that conforms to current international standards -- must be the result of almost-impossible industry-wide consensus, establishment of a central authority and unanimous regulatory effort, which in this case amounts to the herding of cats.

While considering the nation's deficit, the debt ceiling, frightening debt, burgeoning energy and food prices, withering employment, the declining value of the American dollar, illegal immigration, the Middle East, North Africa, the future of Social Security and Medicare, deficit reduction, astounding Federal waste and the storm savaged southern countryside, it remains Derby week in the United States and therefore the opportunity for a bit of high-profile face time is readily at hand for members of Congress with an agenda if no clue. A politician, no matter how ill-informed and nonsensical, is ever opportunistic but in the end -- and especially in this case -- will always cause more damage than good.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at pmoran1686@aol.com.