To Lasix or Not to Lasix

The no raceday medication movement is gaining momentum. It has a far stronger feel than in years past. I don’t think this issue will be fully resolved for a while, but some of racing’s elite trainers have concluded it is necessary for the health of the sport.

D. Wayne Lukas, now in the category of elder statesman, and Todd Pletcher have been the trainers the media has gone to for quotes on the Lasix-banning side while Snidely…I mean Rick Violette is adamant about keeping it as a raceday medication.

Lukas and Pletcher are part of a group of 25 prominent trainers, including Shug McGaughey, Richard Mandella and Bill Mott, who had already pledged to keep their two year olds off Lasix and want to make that the standard in racing starting in 2015. Nick Zito said he wasn’t asked to sign but did support the ban.

Violette is backed up by a number of the humid climate trainers in Florida and New York. Violette said,

“The position of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association has not wavered. The science has not changed. The horses have not changed. Most horses suffer from exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH), and Lasix is the only scientifically proven, truly effective treatment we have to protect them. A Lasix ban does not benefit the horse, the owner or the horseplayer. Forcing trainers to return to using archaic methods to treat bleeders, whether it is the barbaric practice of taking away water for 24 to 48 hours or trying homeopathic remedies with questionable results, is not progress. Absent a researched and reasoned alternative to protect horses from EIPH, NYTHA is vehemently against any ban on Lasix.” 

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of gray area. One side says ban drugs, the other side says there is no alternative that isn’t barbaric. I’m not sure either side is ready to compromise, but I’m going to offer my solution.

Those who favor the drug ban not only cite the obvious reason – according to the public “drugs are drugs” and there is always a perception that Lasix is performance enhancing – but also suggest Lasix is the reason horses race about half as often as they did 50 years ago. The argument is that the need for horses to recover from the effects of Lasix only allows them to run six instead of 10-12 times a year. Naturally, owners have to pay trainer and vet bills the whole year. The fewer times a horse runs, the less often it has a chance to catch a purse.

It is also the case that the number of owners has been steadily decreasing. It makes a lot of sense that the ratio of expenses to purses won could be a major contributing factor.

So whether we are talking about potential real problems such as performance enhancement, using Lasix to mask other drugs or how long it takes to recover from the use of diuertics, or perceived problems by the racing public, banning Lasix sounds like a no brainer to those of us limited to betting on horses.

The other question is, how many horses bleed so severely that Lasix is an absolute necessity to keep them racing? There is debate, but the evidence leans toward only a small percentage of horses being serious bleeders. If you are one of the big time trainers, having to retire a chronic bleeder isn’t such a big deal. But if your stable consists of a few claiming runners, the idea of retiring a potential earner is a much tougher decision.

Even Major League Baseball allows synthetic testosterone injections if they are deemed a medical necessity as we found out in the case of Alex Rodriguez. Even if a state requires vet certification before authorizing the use of Lasix, we know that most horses bleed, although not seriously. It’s news if a horse doesn’t get certified for Lasix.

The major difficulty with the discussion at the moment is that it seems to be primarily New York based trainers against other New York based trainers. The rest of the country is apparently just expected to fall in line.

I’ve argued for a national racing commission that would establish consistent rules for the sport, including drugs. But even that commission should take into account there is more than just 1,600 miles between Saratoga and Arapahoe Park. There has to be the equivalent of the major leagues and minor leagues, and the rules have to be slightly more lenient at the minor league tracks. For the sake of argument, let’s divide tracks into A, B, C and D. A tracks would be places like Belmont, Saratoga, Santa Anita, Churchill, Arlington, Del Mar and similar tracks that have multiple Grade 1 races at their meet. B tracks might include Sunland or Tampa or Turf Paradise, tracks that have some big races, but also have a lot of bottom level claimers. To be a B track, a turf course may also be required. C tracks would be all the other tracks, such as Arapahoe Park or Albuquerque. D tracks would be fair meets or places like Wyoming Downs.

I have a fairly simple proposal. Race day medication at A tracks would only be allowed for bleeders that could not race otherwise. The bar would be set very high,  applying to only the most serious bleeders, maybe 2-5% of all runners. If necessary, purses would be supplemented by the commission to ensure enough horses are on the grounds to have full fields.

At B tracks, in addition to certified serious bleeders, Lasix would only be allowed in claiming races below a certain threshold. This means trainers who want to use Lasix might have to risk losing their charges. Horses below the threshold claiming level winning without Lasix would be eligible for a purse bonus. Same for horses that forego Lasix at C tracks.

At C tracks, Lasix would be allowed for all but stakes races.

At D tracks Lasix would be allowed for all horses at all levels.

This system ensures that at the highest levels most of the runners are Lasix free, but it allows racing to continue at the smaller venues. Trainers who want to use Lasix always have places they can race. I think it would even be fine to become more restrictive with Lasix at the B and C tracks over a period of years.

I’m not going to worry about how a track becomes A – D. We all know which tracks are A for sure and C for sure. It then becomes a process of segmenting the remaining tracks. The good thing is that if a track thinks they are a B instead of a C, they would have to adhere to the B level rules.

I could go into a lot more detail, but you get the idea. We recognize the spectrum of tracks that exist and we provide incentives for not using race day medication.

How about helping fill out this idea?