The Seen and Unseen
As the rubric for Eric Mitchell’s Blood-Horse column asks, what’s going on here? In his latest, Mitchell surveys the trainers of the Lasix-free juvenile starters owned by those who pledged to run their 2-year-olds without raceday drugs and finds promise in their results. He also offers some stats:
A chart on this page shows how the non-Salix horses have been performing. Between July 20 and Sept. 5, a total of 749 2-year-old races were run in the U.S. and Canada. Among the winners of those races, 660 (88.1%) ran on Salix and 89 (11.9%) did not.
Among horses that finished in the money, 87.4% raced on Salix and 12.6% ran without the medication.
Interesting. But what do the numbers mean? Very little, without knowing in which, of the 749 juvenile races surveyed, all the starters were on Lasix (those races should be excluded from analysis*; as should, on the off-chance any such event occurred, any race in which no starter was on Lasix), or without knowing the breakdown between the total number of starters on Lasix and not on Lasix. A second chart accompanying the column, focusing on the 2012 Saratoga juvenile races, gives that information, but crucially leaves out the percentages: 20.4% of starts were Lasix-free; 11.2% of winners were.
Not to draw conclusions from the above — there are too many factors in play. As trainer Kiaran McLaughlin told Mitchell, “I just don’t win first time out.” But the numbers hint at a possible answer for the question of whether or not Lasix is performance enhancing, and what its role should be in training and racing. Another potentially illuminating angle on that question would be to look at the 2-year-old earnings for the Lasix-free owners — are their accounts depressed as a group? As compared to previous years? What’s the cost of eschewing raceday medications so long as Lasix remains legal?
A few weeks ago, Tyler Hamilton excited attention with the release of his book, “The Secret Race,” and its revelations about cycling’s doping culture:
The book is the holy grail for disillusioned cycling fans in search of answers. In a taut 268 pages, Hamilton confidently and systematically destroys any sense that there was ever any chance of cleaning up cycling in the early 2000s, revealing the sport’s powerful and elaborate doping infrastructure. He’s like a retiring magician who has decided to let the public in on the profession’s most guarded techniques.
(Before I go any further: Yes, Hamilton’s book is about illegal drug use in cycling, and Lasix is a legal drug in horse racing. I do not conflate the illegal and legal except in considering how decisions to use a drug or not may be distorted by perceptions of advantages employed by others to win.)
For Michael Shermer, the book highlights “the hidden price” of doping:
This is the real harm to those athletes who did not want to dope, who were given the choice to dope and opted out, who pulled over to the curb on the boulevard of broken dreams, stripped off their race number, and packed it in to go home, in most cases back to menial jobs or to finish high school or start college. Who are these cyclists? Tyler names a few in his book, but in most cases we have no idea who they are because they are the unseen ones, those whose potential was never realized because they never had the chance to compete cleanly against their peers.
Realizing potential is one of the arguments used to justify Lasix — stakes caliber horses who bleed abroad may be sent to the US to run, for instance, because their condition can be treated and their careers can continue. Lasix reveals these horses’ full abilities, goes the thinking; to deny them a legal treatment is to make them the unseen ones. And that’s really the question behind the raceday Lasix debate: Which horses should be unseen? Those who can run Lasix-free, or those who can’t run without Lasix?
*Credit to @o_crunk for bringing this point up via DM.