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A Disappointing Show at the Breeder's Cup

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On the eve of the 2012 Breeder's Cup, the world championships of horse racing, there has been as much talk surrounding the ban on race-day medications in all two-year-old races as there has been about every other aspect of the event. When first announced, the ban on specifically Lasix -- a drug to combat lung hemorrhaging in thoroughbreds -- garnered muted support from industry insiders, but as the gates are poised to open on this year's competition, concerns over the move have been noteworthy.

This week, the New York Times ran a piece that spotlighted many of the big players in the sport who have spoken out against the ban. The article mentioned Mike Repole, a prominent New York-based owner, who refused as a result of the rule to send his quartet of Breeder's Cup worthy two-year-olds to the competition. Leading trainers Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher and Dale Romans have all grumbled and moaned about the effect it will have on their team performances.

Perhaps the strongest mood-indicator, however, is in the number of horses running in each of the two-year-old races -- races that traditionally attract large fields. Last year, the same five races attracted a total of 65 runners. Only 55 go to post in the same five races this year -- a marked drop. And the number could fall even further should horses get scratched the day of the race, as is often the case. This despite the $5.5 million in prize money on offer.

This sort of reaction isn't surprising. Horse racing is a sport that lends itself naturally to superstition -- horsemen and women are reluctant to dispense with tradition, especially if the traditions have been winning ones. Given that Lasix is permitted in all North American racing jurisdictions, however, the move is a relatively small one. The ban's significance is as a symbolic gesture -- a show of armistice to a wider global audience.

So what is disappointing is that an equal number of high-profile figures haven't been as eager to stand up to defend the ban -- not everyone is on the side of Repole, Baffert, et al. And right now at least, horse racing in the U.S. needs as many vocal supporters in its corner as it can find.

This year, horse racing scandals have populated the news. The New York Times ran a number of damning stories about smaller provincial racetracks where widespread drug abuses have been rampant. Then there's the hoopla surrounding I'll Have Another's failed bid for the Triple-Crown. In July this year, I'll Have Another's trainer Doug O'Neill was banned from training for 45 days for drug violations -- a sorry coda for a horse who could have done so much to focus attention on the finer aspects of the sport.

Turn from I'll have Another to Frankel's odyssey on British shores and the story is a very different one. When the wonder-horse Frankel won his fourteenth and final race at Ascot last month, he did more than simply cement his position amongst the greatest racehorses ever to grace the turf. He brought horse racing to the front pages of the British tabloids for all the right reasons.

To balance Frankel's explosive brilliance with his fragility as a racehorse, Henry Cecil, Frankel's legendary trainer, had to possess patience, skill, and innate horse-sense. At no point did anybody consider that Cecil had administered drugs to achieve the same results. While racing in the UK has its own troubles to overcome, its stringent stance against the use of race-day medications -- and drug use as a whole -- can only afford it a fighting chance of survival against the naysayers lining up to condemn it.

The tremendous admiration shown towards Frankel by his connections and by the race-going public was a rare and splendid thing. The same fanaticism towards horse racing is mirrored in America. Here, people who love horse racing love, admire, and care for their equine heroes equally as fervently -- a notion difficult to gauge for the non-racing public given the narrow evidence on offer. As is often the case, those few who embody the worst of something are afforded the greatest visibility.

Horse racing is a peculiarly insular sport, and the people in it can be as equally myopic in their view of the sport they love. But the Breeder's Cup has supplied them with the perfect opportunity to illustrate to outsiders that not everyone in horse racing is as callously motivated as the ones that make the headlines. Next year, Lasix will be prohibited from all races at the Breeder's Cup. Hopefully by then, there will be a more strident show of support for a push towards a nationwide ban on race-day medications.

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