Author: Michele Macdonald

OUTSIDE OF mathematics class, sometimes two plus two does not equal four. Most often, however, the equation is valid, in schoolrooms and across the broader world.

Perhaps, then, there is some connection to the facts that:

1. Breeders’ Cup conducted its two day, 14 race event while barring the use of the diuretic Lasix in all competition for the first time in its 38 year history and

2. Japanese-trained horses proceeded to capture two of the major prizes, joining three victorious Godolphin runners from Charlie Appleby’s Newmarket operation.

While many horses traveling from outside North America to past Breeders’ Cups have been given Lasix by their trainers in order to compete on what was typically described as the proverbial ‘level playing field’, barring use of the drug on race day truly does provide for equality in competition. No matter how long and loudly some American owners and trainers have insisted that Lasix is a benevolent and therapeutic substance that is needed in racing, it remained a drug that was banned in competition in all other major jurisdictions around the world.

Bringing America, at least on its championship days and extending to all the associated prep races, in line with those standards was long the goal of Breeders’ Cup management, which had been previously thwarted by threats of lawsuits from wealthy owners, particularly billionaire couple Gary and Mary West, who have raced the likes of champions Maximum Security, West Coast and Game Winner.

“This is extremely important for Breeders’ Cup because we’re on the global stage of racing and we want to have uniform rules and regulations across the world,” Breeders’ Cup President Drew Fleming said before this year’s event was run on November 5 and 6 at Del Mar. “The world as a whole has been running Lasix free for quite a while and it’s important that the Breeders’ Cup now join them.”

It seems more than just a coincidence that Japan sent its best group of runners ever to compete this year, a move that could only help Breeders’ Cup in its global appeal. Two Japanese mares subsequently made history by proving best in their races, with Dubai Sheema Classic third Loves Only You defeating all rivals in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf and Marche Lorraine upsetting the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Japan Racing Association President Masayuki Goto confirmed the connection, saying in a statement to media that ‘tightening the restrictions on Lasix has been positively recognised by many Japanese racing connections since it contributes largely in upholding the integrity of horse racing. I have no doubt that it is one of the factors in the added participation of Japan-based horses this year’.

While Godolphin horses have competed on Lasix in past Breeders’ Cups, there was no reason to change anything in the typical regimens for the European-based runners this year, which most likely was welcomed by Appleby. It’s also worth reiterating that the Americanbased horses were racing all year in Graded Stakes that now are conducted under rules prohibiting the use of Lasix and thus also were continuing on with regimens that many have asserted will eventually lead to more starts per runner.

Horses lose significant water weight when given Lasix, thus gaining an immediate physical advantage in racing while subsequently taking longer to recover from the exertion. While Lasix may now be less of an issue, drugs and horse welfare still are at the top of any list of ongoing problems in the sport in America.

Several major stories involving high profile horses or trainers remain unpleasantly thorny. There still is no end to the controversy surrounding Amr Zedan’s Medina Spirit, who won the Kentucky Derby but later was found in post race testing to have a small amount of the anti-inflammatory betamethasone, an approved drug but only allowed at specific and differing levels in America’s racing states, in his system.

The level indicated by the tests was above that allowed in Kentucky but not in California, where Medina Spirit is regularly stabled. Trainer Bob Baffert has said the betamethasone came from a topical ointment used to treat a skin condition, and thus had no effect on the colt’s performance. Tests were being conducted in late November in an attempt to determine if that was indeed the substance that caused the positive test.

Nonetheless, and even though the Kentucky Racing Commission has not taken action yet on whether Medina Spirit would be disqualifed, Churchill Downs banned Baffert from the track until the middle of 2023, a ruling that would prevent the all time leading Derby winning trainer from competing in the Run to the Roses for the next two years. In a painfully ironic twist, Baffert sent out undefeated Corniche to an easy victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, making that son of Quality Road the USA’s likely 2yo Male Champion.

The colt also would be the strong early Derby favourite under normal conditions but is prohibited by Churchill from accumulating any of its Derby ‘qualifying points’. Thus, dark shadows hang over Medina Spirit, who finished a brave second to the older Knicks Go in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and his younger stablemate.

Another troubling story broke not long after Breeders’ Cup when trainer Peter Miller, who has brought several competitors to the Dubai World Cup program including Stormy Liberal, twice placed in the Al Quoz Sprint, announced he would be stepping back from training duties for an unspecified amount of time. The statement came after widespread speculation online, particularly on social media, that Miller was about to be sanctioned in some way, possibly by Santa Anita Park and its owner, The Stronach Group’s 1/ST Racing.

Two weeks earlier, the Miller-trained Storm Spun, an unraced 3yo colt bred by Phoenix Thoroughbreds, suffered a fatal injury at the San Luis Rey Downs training centre. California Horse Racing Board records indicated the colt was the sixth Miller trainee to die in training at Stronach Groupowned facilities in less than a year.

“I know that there may be some speculation related to this decision; however, I want to make it very clear that it is not a result of any regulatory action, secret agreement, or hidden agenda of any kind,” declared Miller, 55, who has trained five Breeders’ Cup winners and twice Champion Sprinter Roy H. “This is strictly a personal decision.” Another major issue in the sport is the still unpaid purse earned by the Wests’ Maximum Security for his win in the inaugural $20 million Saudi Cup nearly two years ago.

Saudi officials have said they will not pay any purse money to the owners while the American legal system is considering federal charges related to illicit substances levied against the colt’s then trainer, Jason Servis. Further, if the legal system determines that Servis is guilty, the Wests may never receive any prize money from the Saudi Cup.

However, Maximum Security’s post Saudi Cup tests apparently revealed no illegal drugs as none has been reported. Meanwhile, work proceeds on creating the first national framework for regulating American horse racing, which currently has rules on drug usage and threshold limits varying from state to state, under the bipartisan legislation that Congress approved in late 2020.

With so many troubling issues pending, there still seems to be such a long way to go. Yet this year’s Breeders’ Cup seems to show that any progress to better limit, define and oversee drugs and other health and safety issues in the sport can yield valuable dividends. Hopefully, there will be more changes for the better ahead in the new year.

Michele MacDonald
Award Winning International Journalist