On Friday, one of the biggest events in international horse racing returns to Santa Anita Park in Arcadia. The two-day Breeders’ Cup encompasses 15 races for a combined purse of more than $25 million. The grand finale - The Classic - will be televised in prime time for the first time in the event’s history.
But it’s a new drug policy for thoroughbreds, and a debate over who knows what’s best for the horses, that’s creating buzz at the track.
Lasix: Performance-enhancing or not?
It’s about 5:30 in the morning and pitch dark out at Santa Anita Park, but there are dozens of racehorses jogging on and off the track.
Racing fans and horsemen crowd near the starting gate for a chance to see their favorites out exercising ahead of the big Breeders' Cup race.
But racing buffs can’t help but notice that the field of racers seems thinner, and that a couple of the racecards are barely half-full. Ask why, and you get the response: "No Lasix."
Lasix is a drug the Breeders’ Cup is banning from its five races for two-year-olds, or juveniles. It's a move that has angered much of the racing community. One trainer even announced a boycott of the event because of the ban.
Pasadena trainer Gary Stute says if he were lucky enough to have a horse at the Breeders’ Cup, he’d sure want it to receive Lasix, a diuretic.
“Horses, when they try too hard, they’ll rupture a blood vessel, and blood will come out their nose and it hinders their breathing,” Stute said. “So this basically makes them urinate so their blood thickens and it makes it harder for them to bleed.”
Like almost all trainers in the U.S., Stute injects his horses with Lasix several hours before a race. So did his dad, Melvin, who’s trained a couple Breeders’ Cup champs.
“If you had a child and he had nosebleeds, wouldn’t you give him something to help him? I mean it’s just got too fine for me,” Melvin Stute said.
A guard for every horse
Some horse experts say Lasix is a performance-enhancing drug that can act as a masking agent for other drugs. Critics say it also weakens horses, making them more vulnerable to breakdowns. The drug’s supporters dispute all of those claims.
Executives at the Breeders’ Cup insist that by banning Lasix in the juveniles races, they’re not taking sides. Chief operating officer Bob Elliston says his board is just trying to align American horse-racing policy with that of other countries, where race-day use of the drug is barred.
“If you’re going to be an international championship conducting yourself at the highest level,” Elliston said, “you’ve got to take forward steps like this and you have to be willing to have conviction in what you believe.”
Elliston says tight security will ensure that everybody sticks to the new Lasix rules. Each horse gets a round-the-clock guard starting 72-hours before the race.
That way, Elliston said, “We know exactly who’s touching the horse, we know exactly what medicines the horse is getting prior to race day. We are ensured that nothing for those two-year-olds is being administered on the race day itself.”
From frog secretions to "milkshakes"
Lasix is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to drugs in horse racing. A U.S. Senate committee took up the issue at a hearing this summer. Leading the questioning was Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico who’s sponsoring legislation to ban performance-enhancing drugs from horseracing.
The hearing covered a painkiller made from frog secretions. Then there’s the practice of “milkshaking.” That’s when a horse is fed a baking soda-sugar concoction through the nose to raise carbon dioxide levels and reduce fatigue.
Lasix, because it’s so widely and openly used, sparks particularly heated debate. Kent Stirling of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association said at the hearing that the drug is therapeutic.
“Lasix is not performance-enhancing,” Stirling said. “It does not make a horse run faster than it's God-given natural talent. On the other hand, bleeding in the lungs does make a horse run slower and may stop a horse outright.”
But others say that Lasix is definitely a performance-enhancer.
“Frankly, if a lie is told long enough over and over, it begins to sound like the truth,” said Sheila Lyons, founder and director of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation.
Lyons testified that Lasix robs horses of important electrolytes, and she said it does nothing to cure habitual bleeding from the lungs, which can be caused by things other than overexertion.
“I can't justify it,” Lyons said. “Especially in the fact that it not only does not effectively treat a disease that my patient probably doesn't even have, but is going to harm my patient at the same time.”
From anger to reluctant acceptance
Many horsemen reject such statements. But some – among them the most prominent critics of a Lasix ban – are easing their stance.
“I don’t think I have a choice if I want to run," said U.S. Racing Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has entered several juveniles in the Breeders’ Cup. He says his horses are good enough that they can win without Lasix — at least for one day.
Baffert’s juvenile filly Executiveprivilege is the favorite in her race.
But how will she and others run without Lasix? No matter -- Breeders’ Cup officials already plan to expand the ban to all races when the event comes back to Santa Anita again next year.