Jockey Club vice chairman Stuart S. Janney III called the drug Lasix “a polarizing topic if there ever was one.” It shouldn’t be polarizing because it is legal in every U.S. racing jurisdiction, with almost all owners and trainers using it on all of their horses. But suddenly a movement calling for its ban, particularly in top-level competition, has gathered momentum:
● The Breeders’ Cup announced in mid-July that it will ban all race-day medications — principally Lasix — from its 2-year-old races in 2012 and from all of its races in 2013.
● The American Graded Stakes Committee, which bestows the important Grade I, II and III ratings upon U.S. stakes races, followed the Breeders’ Cup announcement by declaring that it will deny graded status in 2012 to any 2-year-old stakes race in which horses can run on Lasix.
● The august Jockey Club declared its opposition to Lasix, with Janney telling the Round Table, “We believed this industry is best served by taking steps . . . toward medication-free racing.”
The pro- and anti-medication camps have argued for decades about whether Lasix gives horses a competitive edge or whether it is a purely therapeutic substance that, as a diuretic, controls the tendency of thoroughbreds to bleed in the lungs after strenuous exercise. The pro-Lasix side, led by the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and aided by racing veterinarians, won the fight in the 1970s, persuading racing commissions across the country to adopt a policy of “permissive medication.” Their winning argument was one that turned out to be a falsehood.
Horsemen and vets maintained that, in the new era of year-round racing, thoroughbreds could not withstand the increased rigors of the sport with the traditional regimen of hay, oats and water. They needed medications such as Butazolidin and Lasix. At the time, the average American thoroughbred made more than 10 starts a year. Since the liberalization of medication rules, that number has declined steadily, and in 2010 the average horse raced 6.11 times. U.S. horses are less durable and productive than their counterparts in nations with restrictive drug policies. Those nations that ban Lasix have seen no epidemics of bleeding. Hong Kong reports an average of 4.6 bleeding incidents per 1,000 runners.
The rest of the racing world looks on U.S. medication policies with scorn, and this opprobrium partly motivated the Breeders’ Cup’s action. Its president, Craig Fravel, said the phase-out of medications would “ensure that we are competitive with other major international racing events.”
The industry, to its credit, has belatedly gotten serious about the misuse of drugs. It banned steroids and instituted testing to stop illegal “milkshaking,” the practice of administering sodium bicarbonate to reduce horses’ fatigue. But the racing organizations’ efforts to curtail the use of Lasix may prove futile and even counterproductive.