As horse racing’s Triple Crown starts Saturday with the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby, industry insiders are talking about how a key racing series backed away from its plan to further restrict use of a popular drug.
The Breeders' Cup World Championships last fall imposed a ban on race-day use of Lasix for two-year-olds. Race officials had planned to expand the ban to older horses, but recently reversed that decision. That pleased trainers opposed to the ban; meanwhile, two U.S. congressmen are introducing legislation to ban race-day use of all medications.
For most race horses, pre-race prep includes an injection of Lasix four hours before the starting bell. The drug is a popular diuretic that U.S. trainers have used for decades. They say it protects horses from pulmonary bleeding caused by the extreme exertion of racing.
But other nations don’t allow race day use of Lasix. That prompted the Breeders’ Cup to introduce its ban for juveniles. Its decision in March to reverse its decision to expand the ban to horses of all ages was just fine with Vladimir Cerin. He’s been training horses for 33 years, and he says Lasix is essential.
"Once they start bleeding, if you don’t treat them, they will slowly become worse and worse," says Cerin. "And every time they bleed, they scar their lungs a little more than the time before….so to me, anyone that likes horses is inhumane to allow them to bleed knowingly."
Critics – including some veterinarians – say while Lasix may lessen bleeding, it doesn’t eliminate it. They say it’s a performance enhancer that can hide the use of illegal drugs, and harm a horse over time. And, they say, it can mask more serious health problems.
One prominent critic is Dr. Sheila Lyons, a veterinarian and an expert in equine sports medicine.
"We have taken a syndrome, which is just presence of blood in the lungs and we have assumed that it is simply exercise related," says Lyons. "But in fact it could be evidence of things like viral infections, bacterial infections, musculoskeletal problems.”
In announcing that the Breeders' Cup will not expand the Lasix ban, Chairman Tom Ludt suggested in a statement that “divisions” within the industry led to the decision. He called for more research on race-day drugs. That, along with "industry pursuit of uniform rules, will move us toward eliminating such divisions," said Ludt.
Some critics accused the Breeders’ Cup board of caving to an industry financially invested in maintaining the status quo.
The industry has to think in economic terms, since trainers can boycott races – such as those that ban Lasix, says Joe Clancy, who writes about horse racing for various publications, including his website, thisishorseracing.com.
"The Breeders' Cup is a business, so if they had fewer horses running in [it] because they went Lasix-free, then that’s a negative," says Clancy.
It's a negative that trainer Vladimir Cerin says was on full display during last November’s Breeders' Cup race for two-year-olds, held at Santa Anita Park. Trainer boycotts resulted in thinner-than-normal fields, he says.
"We had five horses that were strung out from the finish line to an 8th of a mile," says Cerin. "It was horrible racing. Several of the horses bled because they didn’t get Lasix, and they were damaged by being allowed to bleed."
The key issue is keeping "people who want to use additional drugs that are not permitted...out of the horse on race day," says Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and state veterinarian for the California Racing Board. Unlike fellow vet Sheila Lyons, Arthur doesn’t believe Lasix is bad for horses. But because it can mask illegal doping, he does consider it bad for horse racing.
Arthur says one way to protect against illegal drugs is to follow the lead of other states – such as New York and Kentucky -- that allow only independent veterinarians with no interest in a particular horse or trainer to have access to horses on race day.
Dr. Lyons agrees with the Breeders' Cup on the need for the creation of national, uniform drug rules
The debate over Lasix and other drugs for racehorses is about to escalate. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) are introducing legislation that would ban all race-day medications. It would also introduce stiff penalties, including lifetime bans, on those who violate the rules.