We let the screen door hit 2020 on the way out and look forward to a new year. All things considered, the last year had several positive moments for Thoroughbred racing as the industry rose to the occasion amid a pandemic to keep the game going at major racing centers across the country, in the breeding shed, and at sales venues.
As much as we'd like to have them, there are little to no expectations that 2021 will be all roses. Issues regarding the safety and well-being of our sport abound. The passage of the omnibus bill just before New Year's Eve ushers in a new era with the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, but that officially won't be fully implemented until mid-year 2022. That's a long way to the wire.
The issue of advance deposit wagering along with the breakdown of the pricing model is one of many elephants in the room. Smarter people than we will be needed to sort out a better, more equitable model for horsemen and tracks. If anything, the results of COVID-19 and a lack of onsite wagering (where a larger slice of the pie goes to purses) will hopefully fast-track this discussion.
The biggest issue continues to be race-day medication. In this instance, the wheels are rolling in the right direction.
It didn't take long for new rules regarding the administration of Lasix (furosemide, or Salix) in stakes races to hit center stage in 2021—try the first day of the year.
After a season of racing where most major jurisdictions banned the use of Lasix in 2-year-old races, the new year ushered in the next phase of a plan that will eventually eliminate the use of the diuretic on race day in North America. In addition to races for juveniles, the ban on race-day administration of Lasix extended to stakes races run in New York, California, Florida, Kentucky, as well as other states for 2021.
Santa Anita Park offered the first graded stakes of the year, the Joe Hernandez Stakes (G2T) for older sprinters going 6 1/2 furlongs Jan. 1.
Prior to the race, trainer Peter Miller, who had two runners entered in the Hernandez, told BloodHorse's Byron King: "Talk about just shooting yourself in the foot. These idiots think that it is going to move the needle. It's going to move it the wrong way," Miller said. "The people that like horse racing like it. People that don't—Lasix doesn't matter."
Miller, outspoken in his comments in favor of continued use of Lasix, won the race with Tom Kagele's Hembree while Altamira Racing Stable, Rafter JR Ranch, STD Racing Stable, and A. Miller's Texas Wedge finished fifth. Miller stated in a text message that Texas Wedge had bled "3 out of 5. Needs 50-60 days turned out."
Miller—who won the following day's San Gabriel Stakes (G2T) with Peter Redekop's Anothertwistafate—is not alone in his feelings toward Lasix. As we all know, it's been a hot-button issue for as long as it has been legal in Thoroughbred racing—some 40-plus years.
However, a movement to remove all medications from race day has gathered enough traction and has been championed by enough industry leaders in the span of the last decade to swing the pendulum. We have just entered the next segment—albeit an awkward one—of the phase-out.
The rules at present do appear spotty at best. For example, 2-year-olds that could not race on Lasix last year, now can in 2021…but not in stakes races. Older runners can race on Lasix at the allowance and claiming levels, but not in stakes.
Confusing? You betcha.
However, it's one of many steps on the bridge. This too, shall pass. Ultimately the use of all medications within 48 hours of a race will be restricted upon the implementation of HISA.
Now is not the time to waver. It's going to take a while to get there, but the current path we are on will get us to the right destination: a sport with more integrity, a sport with a more level playing field, and a sport that has respect both inside and outside our insular world of Thoroughbred breeding and racing.