(By Avalyn Hunter)
When the board of the Breeders' Cup announced its plans to phase out all race-day medication for Breeders' Cup entrants, discussions sprang up on media outlets, forums, and blogs across the country.[Read The Blood-Horse editor Eric Mitchell's comments in this week's What's Going On Here column.] Most of the responses can be described as cautiously positive, though the proposal to include Salix in the ban continues to draw some argument. But in truth, this was a move that was badly needed, and probably should have come sooner.
First, racing must move on the race-day medication issue or face the specter of government regulation. While Congressional oversight might solve some problems, the chances are excellent that it would create far more than it would solve. The interests of politicians are not necessarily those of racing or horsemen, and everyone involved in the Thoroughbred industry would do well to remember this.
Second, the Breeders' Cup's decision has forced other groups to not only acknowledge the elephant in the room but to consider what they will do about it. If racing's championship event will no longer permit the use of race day medications, state racing commissions have the choice of following suit or risking that the tracks and races they oversee may lose influence in the development and crowning of champions. One need only review the history of racing in New York, which for years held out against liberalized medication rules, to know what can happen when horses that have earned their reputations while racing on medication must suddenly do without. And while horsemen had the option of forgoing racing in New York if they did not wish to abide by that state's rules, one suspects that racing's elite will be far more reluctant to pass on the Breeders' Cup.
Third, the decision to eliminate medication from North American racing's top showcase is likely to resonate favorably with foreign horsemen, many of whom have viewed American form with deep suspicion in recent years. While the prevalence of dirt racing in North America sometimes has been blamed for this, it should be remembered that dirt racing was even more prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s, which saw both a flood of top American-bred runners in Europe and top prices paid for American bloodstock by foreign buyers. To be sure, the incredible success of Northern Dancer helped fuel the boom, but other lines, such as those of Hail to Reason and Never Bend, also adapted very well to European conditions.
The long and the short of it is that American racing's preference for dirt surfaces is no more of an issue that it was 40 years ago; it is the widespread use of race day medications that has been the biggest single change in American racing since then, and it goes against the grain of legal practices in the world's other major racing nations. We can either keep in step with the rest of the world, as the Breeders' Cup has decided to do, or we can risk becoming increasingly irrelevant.