LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- There's nothing wrong with wanting to lead. But it's hard to do if nobody follows.
Wednesday, the Kentucky Racing Commission drew a line in the sand (or dirt, or polytrack). Out of a desire to make Kentucky a leader in reform of race-day medication in horse racing, the state's racing commission voted 7-5 to phase in a ban of the anti-bleeding medication furosemide in graded stakes races and those races eligible to become graded stakes.
There's nothing wrong with leading. And there's nothing wrong with wanting to reduce the amount of race-day medication given to horses.
But two rights sometimes can make a wrong. And if Kentucky thinks a ban on the diuretic commonly referred to as Lasix will cause other state commissions to do the same, it's making a losing bet.
That line in the sand? When Kentucky says, "Who's with us?" it's hard to see where any other states have any incentive to join Kentucky in stepping over it.
Instead, by banning a therapeutic medicine that keeps horses form bleeding excessively during races, Kentucky may well have spilled blood in the water for other states, who already have seized on competitive advantages created by Kentucky's lack of casino gaming revenue to make further inroads into this state's racing and breeding industries.
If Kentucky wanted to lead, it should have built the best and strongest racing circuit in the nation, with the highest purses and best breeding incentives. It should have bolstered a signature industry instead of dragging its feet for petty political reasons.
It should've created a stakes lineup of such quality and value that trainers would have to think long and hard before racing elsewhere.
As it is, trainers and owners probably won't have to think twice about bailing on the Bluegrass. They're already doing it, to a degree. Casino-gaming inflated purses in other states already are drawing some of the sport's top trainers and their horses. Fields in races in this state already have been shrinking.
I understand the sentiment. Horse racing is fighting what it fears to be a public perception that there is too much unnecessary drugging of its animals. I'm not sure I hear it much from the public. I hear it from the media. I hear it from The Jockey Club.
Beyond that, it is facing the reality that widespread use of medication could be allowing mediocre or inferior horses to race, and become part of the breeding establishment, contributing to the weakening of the breed.
Some look to Europe, which doesn't allow race-day medication (though it does allow horses to train on Lasix), as an example, and that's fine.
The problem is that in striking the first blow in that fight, Kentucky officials have gone after a fairly benign and completely legal medicine that veterinarians around the sport will tell you has a legitimate therapeutic use in thoroughbreds.
Horses who need it but don't get it will come off the track spitting up blood, spattered by blood that they've exhaled while running or training. The administration of Lasix is closely monitored, and is openly reported in each horse's past-performance record. Those who support a ban say the drug is being used as a performance-enhancer even on horses that don't need it. And a glance at any race card to see the percentage of horses using the drug confirms that they might be onto something.
Still, in going after Lasix, the state racing commission has done the equivalent of putting allergy medicine behind the pharmacy counter because people are using it to make methamphetamine.
And in acting alone, it would appear that Kentucky's racing leadership, or at least its statewide leadership where racing is concerned, is allergic to success.
Kentucky is betting that its historic place in the sport will lead others to come to a similar decision on drugs, and maybe provide them political cover to do so.
But in most cases, history can't combat money. This kind of reform needs to happen sport-wide. Unilateral actions by state racing commissions with no nationwide coordination only are throwing the sport further out of balance.
This debate is far from over. The ban isn't scheduled to begin phasing in until 2014, and today's decision must now pass through a legislative review process, and may face challenges in court.
In fact, the immediate effect of the vote is more symbolic than substantive. But it may not be the symbol its proponents intended. While some will see it as striking a blow for cleaning up the sport, others are bound to view it as a blow to the sport in the state.
Dale Romans, who grew up on the backside of Churchill Downs working around his father's barn, already has taken his operation to New York, because of better purses. If Romans will leave the state, anybody will. He calls the passage of a Lasix ban "the final nail in the coffin" for Kentucky racing.
I don't know if it will kill Kentucky racing. The Kentucky Derby will always be the Kentucky Derby, and owners will climb over each other to race in it, even without Lasix.
But don't expect other states to climb over themselves to follow Kentucky. They're more likely to go to the whip in a race to lure horses riding out of the state.
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