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Alysheba: Horse of the Year or Druggie of the Year?

The ballot arrived the other day, the one to choose the 1987 Horse of the Year, and it was with considerable reluctance, even a pang of conscience, that the hand guiding the pen scrawled out the name Alysheba.

Not that Alysheba hasn't a record worthy of the award. No other horse in the U.S. did as much on as many different racetracks last year. No horse was campaigned more ambitiously, and none showed more verve and bravery under fire. Alysheba won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs and got beat a nose by the older Ferdinand in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Hollywood Park. Oh, Ferdinand will probably be awarded horse racing's ultimate prize when it's announced on Jan. 27, even though he ran like a state senator, never once making an appearance outside of California.

The reason for my reluctant Alysheba vote is simple: He's a druggie. All but one of his big efforts in 1987 came with the aid of the diuretic Lasix, a drug that lowers blood pressure and thus helps prevent bleeding from the lungs. Lasix is also known to enhance performance in other ways and can mask the presence of illicit drugs. But the use of Lasix is legal at nearly all U.S. tracks, and one can argue that I shouldn't hold Alysheba's use of it against him if the drug is condoned almost universally, if idiotically, in racing. That notwithstanding, the final effect of Alysheba's use of Lasix was to call into question his abilities as a racehorse.

Alysheba is a prototypical example of why drugs and racing don't mix, particularly at the sport's highest level—at the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup level—where the winner of Horse of the Year honors, among other things, is decided. It's there that breeders look for stallions to court their mares, and where racing should be a showcase for the best that it has to offer. Instead, it's a venue for drug users.

After his Lasix-aided victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Alysheba was shipped to New York in quest of winning the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown. Because New York doesn't permit horses to run on any medication—it's the only major center of racing in the U.S. that doesn't—the question was whether he could prevail without using the juice. It was a dismayingly diverting issue, which served to strip the Triple Crown of the romance and magical sense it has always had in the past.

Alysheba got buried in the Belmont, finishing fourth, 14¼ lengths behind the winner, Bet Twice. Did he lose because he had a rough trip, which he did, or because he was suffering from the stresses of an enervating campaign? Or, and here we go again, was it because he ran without Lasix? Running free of Lasix in the Haskell Handicap at Monmouth Park in August, Alysheba again lost to Bet Twice, by a neck. Free of it again for the Travers at Saratoga three weeks later, he finished sixth, 20¼ lengths back of Java Gold. On the juice for the Super Derby a month later, he won. And on it again for the Breeders' Cup, he just missed whipping Ferdinand. On, off, off, on. No wonder so many serious handicappers decry the use of drugs.

So, how good was Alysheba? The question lingers, unanswered and unanswerable. It lies at the root of my reluctance to vote for him.

It's wrong, flat wrong, for any graded stakes race to be contested by horses running with the help of any drug, be it Lasix or phenylbutazone—an anti-inflammatory agent permitted in most states—or any other substance that forgives a horse his infirmities. That the Breeders' Cup board, which supposedly represents the best interests of the industry, has allowed drug-aided horses to compete in its races is particularly hypocritical. Worse than creating fits for bettors, worse than muddying up the making and breaking of champions, permissiveness in the use of medication may corrupt the breed itself.

The problem is this: Crooked-legged horses tend to beget crooked-legged horses, and although there's not yet any hard evidence, some horse people believe that bleeders tend to beget bleeders. The graded stakes, of which there were 409 in North America last year, attract the very best horses in the sport. They are the ones who will eventually go to stud, be bred to one another and pass on from one generation to the next the best and the worst that is in them.

There are a lot of horses going to stud today who would never have made it to the racetrack without drugs. Drugs may interrupt this natural process of ferreting out the good from the bad, and one wonders what the effect of this will be on the thoroughbred breed in years to come.

The use and abuse of medication befouled the year of Alysheba, leaving one to question whether the best and most accomplished horse in the land really was all he seemed to be.