A spoonful of 'candy' and horse racing cheaters win again

April 08, 2008 7:00 PM
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Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein | Some writers speak in hushed tones, pussyfooting around crucial issues, careful not to offend.

Others, with testosterone coursing through their typing fingers, tell it like it is.

Two of the latter were front and center last week, firing real bullets.

Bill Finley, whose writing can be read in the New York Times, ESPN and its website, Sports Illustrated, USA Today and assorted other reading rooms, and Barry Irwin, a major thoroughbred owner whose Team Valor stable is well known in the sport and who has been a crusader against illegal medication for years, spoke out loud and clear on two related ills of horse racing.

Finley blasted Lasix, a diuretic not intended for use in horses but now almost universally used in this country, and Irwin ventured the bold idea that federal intervention – almost universally feared by the industry – might not be a bad idea to stop the cheaters who make up a small but destructive minority in the sport.

Lasix got a foothold decades ago when horsemen pressured racing commissions into letting them use it. It now is a treatment of choice, supposedly as a preventative or aide in treating bleeders, and used so widely that it never will be outlawed.

Finley thinks it should be, and last week he had a convincing case to use for his argument. It was the world’s best thoroughbred, the American runner Curlin, who romped in the $5 million Dubai World Cup, where three American horses won on the six-race card. Another American was second, and still another third in races on the oil rich card.

Those horses all run on Lasix in the United States. They are not allowed to do so in Dubai, or in virtually every other racing country in the world, and Finley jumped on the irony. The same day as the World Cup, all 12 starters in the Florida Derby, a major prep for the Kentucky Derby, ran on Lasix, and 105 of the 107 horses racing at Gulfstream Park that day ran with the diuretic in their systems.

Finley noted that since the inception of the Dubai World Cup 12 years ago, dozens of American horses have gone to the Middle East and ran drug free just fine.

"Back when Lasix was a hot button issue," he wrote, "and was not yet legal in all states, trainers and veterinarians argued vehemently that the drug was necessary to keep their bleeders racing. Without it, they claimed, an abundance of horses would be sidelined, unable to make money for their owners and fill out racing cards. Racing commissions and commissioners bought it…As the years went on, the idea that Lasix was strictly for the horses who needed something to help their bleeding problems became a joke…trainers use Lasix (now known as Salix) not to control bleeding but to make sure they are on a level playing field with everyone else…They don’t want to be the one guy out there without that edge."

Finley offers statistics that Lasix has demeaned the game, and says, "It appears that Lasix doesn’t solve bleeding or keep horses in training longer. Then what does it do?" He says it masks other drugs, which is why the World Anti-Doping Agency does not allow human athletes to use it in the Olympics.

Finley concludes, "Lasix is a fraud…Its usage here is out of control and no one seems to want to do anything about it. That needs to change."

Barry Irwin, writing a letter that was headed "Don’t Dread the Feds," to the editor of the popular weekly thoroughbred magazine The Blood-Horse, argues that he, for one, would welcome assistance from the feds, "especially if they get the FBI in the act. He says only these guys have the expertise to find the kind of evidence needed to catch bad guys."

We are not fans of the FBI, nor of the idea of federal control rather than state control of racing. But we see constant evidence that the states cannot control the illegal medication problem, and the established security agencies do not have either the ability or the power to handle the problem adequately.

Irwin indicts some horsemen’s leaders for "doing everything in their power to make sure the candy remains available to their constituents," and says that if they prevail it could lead to federal intervention, If that happens, he says, "they will have contributed something positive to the racing game."

There are legislators in Washington who already have started drives for federal control of racing. If racing and its authorized chemists do not find what the small circle of cheaters are using and get the rotten apples out of the barrel, Irwin’s prediction could come true.