It appears likely that Big Brown, a sizable bay colt romantically named in honor of United Parcel Service, will complete a historic run to the Triple Crown at Belmont Park in three weeks.
Ever after, 2008 will be known as the year in which horse racing's 30-year drought between Triple Crown winners was broken. Perhaps more important, it might also become the year in which racing began to end the era of unrestrained and poorly monitored doping of its equine athletes.
Other sports have previously reached a similar watershed with respect to performance-enhancing drugs. The Olympics became serious after its records were shredded to medal-adorned ribbons in the 1970s and 1980s. Baseball, more late than necessary, got wise to its bulging steroid problem just a few years ago.
The common thread in these cases is that action took place only when there was a serious image problem, a worry that sponsors and the paying public would be driven away by rampant cynicism.
The flashpoint for horse racing was the on-track death of Eight Belles just after the completion of this year's Kentucky Derby. There is no indication the filly's death was drug-related, but, combined with the breakdown of Barbaro at the Preakness in 2006, racing knows it has an image problem.
Many factors have caused modern racehorses to be more fragile than thoroughbreds of generations ago. They are bred for speed, not endurance, from a stud pool that, increasingly, never proves its competitive durability. The best ones are then asked to train too hard, too early for a Triple Crown series that doesn't allow the proper recovery between races.
And then there are the drugs. Since the 1970s, when the racing industry legalized the use of medications that are prohibited everywhere else in the world, horses have been able to run despite pain - because they don't feel it.
Lasix, the anti-bleeding agent, is standard here and anathema everywhere else. Butazolidin is administered as if it were aspirin. Bulking up horses with anabolic steroids is prohibited in 10 states, including Pennsylvania and Delaware, but that doesn't include the three that host the Triple Crown races. All the horses trained by Rick Dutrow Jr., including Big Brown, get a healthy dose of Winstrol on the 15th of every month, by his own admission.
That means racing's new superstar, if the schedule was adhered to, received a steroid injection two days before the Preakness. It makes you all dewy-eyed about that Triple Crown, doesn't it?
The legal drugs are one thing, of course. The banned ones, which maybe the testers catch and maybe they don't, are another thing entirely. The current favorite is Mepivacaine, which deadens pain so well that a severely injured horse will literally run its heart and legs out for you.
Dutrow was suspended for 60 days in 2005 when one of his horses was found to be juiced up with Mepivacaine. Not to pick on him - although he is about to win the Triple Crown - but Dutrow has been either fined or suspended during each of the last eight years for doping violations, according to records kept by the Association of Racing Commissioners International.
Throw him out of the sport? He's more likely to be selected as trainer of the year.
So, there is an image problem.
The Jockey Club, where a lot of the old money and big money in the sport resides, has noticed. A Thoroughbred Safety Committee has been formed to address issues dealing with "breeding practices, medication, the rules of racing and track surfaces." There is no doubt there will be good recommendations from this committee, but also no doubt that implementing them will be difficult.
Horse racing has no central authority or commissioner. The laws of each state are different. Finding the money to fund a real drug-monitoring program is unlikely. And - here's the tough part - the sport is dying, surviving in some locales only as a cover for slot-machine gambling.
The only possible salvation, luring in the casual fan who falls in love with a wonderful horse, is always short-circuited because the horse either dies or is hustled off to the breeding shed. Big Brown's owners, for instance, signed a $50 million stud deal with Three Chimneys Farm that assures that, no matter his greatness, the horse will never see a racing season for 4-year-olds.
Instead of having a Breeders' Cup Classic that has the best horses from the last two or three Triple Crown seasons - imagine what that field would be like - racing buries or hides its heroes, and then wonders why no one goes to the track anymore. This sport doesn't need a committee. It needs an intervention.
Still, there is hope that the latest embarrassments will lead to action. It doesn't seem impossible that steroids will be made illegal everywhere, and, if racing really wants to clean up, that the anti-bleeders and painkillers will be swept away as well.
Maybe the horses will run a little slower in the future. That's fine. It also means that unfit horses won't make the breeding shed to pass along problems that were masked by drugs.
This is a great game, but every game has to face the moment when it must change. Horse racing has reached that moment, and when 2008 is remembered, it better be remembered for more just than Big Brown.
Bob Ford: New York, New York
Addressing steroids, Kentucky names equine medical director.