As far as trainer Wayne Lukas is concerned, Flanders, one of the best young fillies he has ever trained, is undefeated. She went to the races five times this year and was always first to the wire, once by an eye-popping 21 lengths and most recently by only a head in a gritty performance on only three solid legs in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last month.
But one of Flanders' victories--and a purse worth $67,740--was taken away by New York racing authorities, who seem hamstrung by a drug-testing system that is too good for its own good.
In New York, the only racing jurisdiction that prohibits all race-day medications, a trace of a drug in a horse's system is considered a positive test, and that is what disqualified Flanders after her 3 1/4-length victory in a major race, the Matron Stakes at Belmont Park on Sept. 17.
The drug in question is isoxuprine, a therapeutic medication legal in many states. Given orally to horses with circulatory foot problems, isoxuprine is not supposed to either enhance or dull a horse's performance.
Exercising his option, Lukas had a split sample of Flanders' urine sent to an independent laboratory, in Ohio, and the result of that analysis was negative.
Having already redistributed the purse money, New York was in a quandary. There was talk of sending a third Flanders sample to another lab, "a referee lab," Bennett Liebman of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board called it. Liebman was also stewing about the awkward positions racing authorities are put in because of disagreeing test labs.
But instead of going to a third lab with the Flanders specimen, the New York board asked the Ohio lab to continue its testing. Last month, several days after Flanders' victory in the Breeders' Cup, the racing board received a report that a trace of isoxuprine was found. Now Lukas, the leading trainer in the country for 11 of the last 12 years, faces a minimum suspension of 45 days.
Because of the high visibility of the horse, Lukas and Flanders' owner, William T. Young, the New York board is moving slowly in this case.
"We've written to Lukas and Young, asking them for added information," a spokesman for the board said this week. "We want them to supply some of their supplementary lab information. We can't complete our evaluation of this case until we see this information."
Lukas compares his position to those of five thoroughbred trainers who were recently fined in California after their horses had tested positive for small levels of a prohibited drug. The trainers are appealing their penalties.
"I don't have this firsthand, but I've heard that they didn't find the trace in Flanders until they went through her fourth sample," Lukas said. "Other than that, I haven't heard anything, one way or the other.
"We haven't done anything wrong. But if they've got such sophisticated testing equipment that they're going to find these nanogram traces in these horses, then none of us (trainers) have a chance. They're finding traces that have no bearing on the performance of the horse. If this is what the testing is going to come up with, then we're going to have to address this situation in an entirely different manner."
A nanogram is defined as a billionth of a gram of a substance per milliliter of urine. One of the horses from the recent California cases registered a positive at the three-nanogram level.
In California, the racing board would have dropped the Flanders case after Lukas' split sample came back negative.
California's medication guidelines came about after trial and a lot of error, in the aftermath of two unfortunate horse-drugging scandals in recent years. Lukas himself was involved in one, spending more than $100,000 in legal fees to clear his name after one of his horses tested positive for cocaine. Although he declined to look that far ahead Friday, Lukas would probably fight a suspension in New York with equal determination.
Meanwhile, Flanders remains in Kentucky, recovering from surgery that she underwent two days after her Breeders' Cup victory over stablemate Serena's Song at Churchill Downs. She suffered a cannon-bone fracture to the right foreleg and was vanned off the track after the race.
Lukas' other Breeders' Cup-winning 2-year-old, Timber Country, has been returned to Santa Anita after a rest at the farm and will start light training soon. The plan for Timber Country, the early favorite for next year's Kentucky Derby, is to begin his 3-year-old campaign in late January or early February, probably in California.
Both horses are cinch Eclipse Award winners, and Flanders will probably be the unanimous choice in the 2-year-old filly division.
"She's doing fine," Lukas said Friday. "The prognosis on whether she'll race again is the same. They won't know right away. They'll have to take new X-rays, assess her progress and come to a decision."
That should happen in the early spring. By then, maybe New York racing officials will have determined whether this fine filly is undefeated.