Trainer Bud Delp announced last week that he will soon move his stable from Maryland, where he has enjoyed two decades of success, "to another state where condiitions are better." One condition that Delp finds so objectionable in his home state is the restriction on use of the drug Lasix.
Most trainers in Maryland share his feeling, and they will ask the racing commission next week to liberalize its rules governing Lasix. Some militants wanted to strike over the drug iussue. In other states, such as Illinois and Kentucky, horsemen have obtained court injunctions to stop racing commissions from putting tough drug rules into effect.
It might seem strange that such passions could be aroused by a drug that helps the small percentage of horses who tend to bleed from the nostrils during a race. But the Lasix controversy involves a much broader issue: the interests of horsemen versus the interests of the sport.
To the trainer of a bleeder, Lasix seems an undiluted blessing. When a horse tends to bleed, he may suck the blood back into his throat and lungs and have such trouble breathing that he is virtually worthless as a race-horse. Lasix can cure him. Yet in Maryland, he can be treated with the medication only if a state veterinarian had witnessed him bleeding on the track.
If the horse goes back in his barn and then bleeds, he's not eligible for Lasix. If his bleeding is internal, he isn't eligible, either. To the owner of a bleeder who may be worth $50,000 with Lasix and zero with it, these restrictions seem irrational. Maryland trainers want a much more liberal system for carrying horses as bleeders, perhaps something like Pennsylvania's. sThere a horse may get Lasix if an endoscopic examination detects blood in his lungs. (This isn't terribly restrictive, since a recent study disclosed that as many as 96 percent of all horses may have such traces.) What the trainers would like even better, of course, is the right to use Lasix any time they think it necessary, without having to get the state's permission.
People who advocate the unfettered use of Lasix have short memories. Trainers talk as if they want to use the drug judiciously to treat a specific ailment, but Laxis has been wildly abused since it was introduced to American racetracks in the early 1970s. At first, private vets could certify horses as bleeders, and well-connected trainers managed to get the coveted "bleeder slips" for practically all the horses in their stables. Horse-players remember that time well, because the form went crazy. Animals were improving 10 or 20 lengths overnight, giving some credence to the widespread belief that Lasix could camouflage the presence of more potent, illegal drugs in a horse's system.
When the Maryland Racing Commission allowed the unrestricted use of Lasix, but decreed that horses getting the medication should be listed publicly, bettors had further reason for skepticism. While Lasix was supposed to help the 5 percent of thoroughbreds who were bleeders, 60 to 70 percent of the horses on every racing program in Maryland would be running with the drug. The use of drugs seemed about as controlled and judicious at Laurel, Bowie and Pimlico in the 1970s as it was in Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s.
The sport was suffering from a tremendous public relations problem, a universal perception that "drugged horses" were running at American tracks. Federal intervention was threatened. So the National Association of State Racing Commissioners proposed tough guidelines on drugs, including a ban on Lasix. But the nation's owners and trainers have fought such restrictions on every front; they can't live without their drugs.
Their principal argument -- that restrictions on Laxis hurt them economically by decreasing the value of certain thoroughbreds -- is somewhat specious. The state of Maryland will pay out exactly the same number of dollars to owners and trainers whether Lasix is legal or not. The only difference is that it will be distributed more to the owners and trainers of physically sound horses and less to those with physical problems -- which is what improving the breed is all about anyway.
"When they talk about how their horses will decrease in value without lasix," said trainer King T. Leatherbury, "I think they're forgetting that sound horses will be increasng the value."
The worst aspect of the trainers' crusade for drugs is the public perception of what they are doing. The trainers are saying (with the world listening): We can't train without using drugs. Our horses can't run without drugs.Even after the "permissive medication" experiment of the 1970s failed miserably and left the sport with a tarnished public image, owners' and trainers' groups have been fighting protracted battles for more drugs.
The most tangible result of the resulting image problem is the Corrupt Horse Racing Practices Act, a heavy-handed bill that would mandate criminal penalties for even minor drug violations. Sen. Charles Mathias (R-Md.), said he will hold hearings on the measure at the start of next year if the sport doesn't set its own house in order. Concern over such intervention is what made the National Association of State Racing Commissions realize it had to draft some tough guidelines on drugs. But such concerns don't faze the trainers.
"Horsemen tend not to look at the overall picture," Leatherbury said. "They have tunnel vision; they see only their own personal problems and don't look at the industry as a whole."
At one point in the Maryland trainers' meeting on Lasix last week, Leatherbury said, "I hope we trainers are as important as we think we are." He was met with a smattering of boos, which was not surprising. Trainers seem to believe that the convenience of using drugs such as Lasix on their horses is more important than the health of the sport.