Veterinarians and racing officials from around the globe didn’t mince words to their American colleagues at the two-day Belmont Park Summit in June. Abandon the widespread use of race-day medication.
“If the U. S. is serious about the breed, it should eliminate Lasix now,” said Denis Egan, an Irish Turf club executive who urged North American horsemen to abandon the widespread use of race day medication.
“The view in Ireland is that racing in the U. S. is tainted because of the use of drugs in racing.”
Bill Nader is a former chief operating officer of the New York Racing Association. In 2007, he was named the executive director for the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
“I left New York thinking it (Lasix) was part of racing,” Nader related. “I’ve now seen another part of the world and it gives me no satisfaction to tell you day-to- day racing in Hong Kong is much better than racing in New York or California.”
Never one to clean-up its own house, the U. S. racing industry is now being threatened by a bill introduced in Congress by the horse-loving New Mexico senator Tom Udall and Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield (Ky.) in early May. It authorizes the Federal Trade Commission to use its power over interstate commerce to stop the widespread use of performance-enhancing substances not now banned in the United States and Canada but illegal virtually everywhere else the world. The legislation also includes a tough three-strikes-and-you’re-out penalty system.
The impetus for the law is a group of 220 respected breeders and investors spearheaded by Chester County residents Roy and Gretchen Jackson and Eclipse Award winning breeder and owner George Strawbridge, along with Kentucky’s Arthur Hancock, celebrated for raising three Kentucky Derby winners. The trio signed a letter entitled “At The Precipice” accompanying the announcement of the legislation.
“In our opinion, this is the only way to end this terrible blight on American racing and to bring us in line with the rest of the world. We fear that racing is rapidly becoming a socially unacceptable sport because of performance-enhancing drugs. Many of our organizations are becoming increasingly concerned about this, but are utterly powerless to do anything about it. We have been disappointed time after time over the years by promises, platitudes, and good intentions. Now, here is a way to stop this madness once and for all.”
For the leaders of the reform movement, the goal is to get out in front of the “drug culture” issue. It’s a tall task for an industry that is fractured, leaderless and overrun with blatant conflicts of interests. Unlike other sports, horse racing lacks a commissioner or governing body that can issue uniform medication rules and ban performance-enhancing drugs.
“We (breeders and owners) believe Congressional action is needed to address this critical challenge facing the industry,” said Gretchen Jackson who along with her husband Roy operates Lael Stables outside West Grove. Pa.
“The government is already involved in the sport. The legislation would add new provisions to the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978. To amend that bill would be easy.”
Jackson also points out that horse owners were not part of the panels of speakers at the Belmont Summit.
“Owners sometime are excluded and decisions are made for us,” Gretchen noted. “TOBA (Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association) has no backbone. They don’t seem to represent us. We need better leadership and owners need to be more responsible.”
The breeders and owners of the iconic Barbaro, the Jacksons have been urging “tough love” for some time, speaking out against performance-enhancing drugs. Horsemanship, not chemistry, is the name of the game.
“When we started in the late 1970s it was shocking if a horse bled,” Gretchen recalled. “I don’t ever remember it, it was so rare. Back then it was a fate worse than death. Then race-day medications entered the game in a big way. Nobody tolerates this in any other sport. Why do we tolerate it in horseracing? We want it brought under control with a level playing field.
“Generation after generation we’re producing bleeders and weaker horses. The overseas buyers don’t want our horses. Look at all the talented horses that couldn’t make it to the Derby this year. If we came in line with our drug policies with the rest of the world it would help restore faith in the sport and the breeding of thoroughbreds.”
At the center of the storm are Furosemide (also known as Lasix or Salix) and a widely used non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkiller, Phenylbutazone (Bute). Both are legally tolerated at certain levels on race days, and are perceived by the public as a legal form of drugging racehorses.
Lasix is a powerful diuretic that reduces blood pressure by lowering fluid levels and can ease pulmonary bleeding in the lungs. The drug also causes a horse to lose 20-30 pounds immediately before a race, certainly a performance enhancer, but that weight loss requires more recovery time between races. Other than the U. S. and Canada, racing jurisdictions around the world ban the use of Lasix on race days since it improves performance. Lasix is banned from all human competitions.
Studies report that only four to five percent of racehorses bleed badly enough to hamper performance. Still, 95 percent of all thoroughbreds in roughly 50,000 North American races are treated. Yet, as Lasix and Bute became staples of racehorse training and competition, the drugs have done nothing to improve the health, longevity and performance of the American thoroughbred.
Fifty years ago a thoroughbred had a career average of 45 starts, versus 13.5 in 2010. The average horse races just six times a year, down from 11 in the early 1960s. And unlike human athletes in every other sport, thoroughbreds are not getting faster. The 2011 Kentucky Derby prep races were as slow as any in recent memory. Since Secretariat scorched the Derby in 1:59 2/5, in 1972, only two horses since then—Spend a Buck in 1985 and Monarchos in 2001— hit the wire under 2:01.
Prior to the big push by American trainers in the late 1970s to legalize Lasix, a “bleeder “was a horse who bled from the nostrils after a race or workout. In the years since, proponents of the drug changed the term “bleeder” to Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage that means the presence of blood, even in tiny flecks, in the airway as a result of exercise.
Lasix support for the most part comes from horsemen, horsemen’s groups and veterinarians. They argue it is actually good for the horse since it spares the horse from the pain that severe bleeding inflicts. They contend it is the only drug that has been demonstrated to be effective in treating bleeding. They argue that not to allow horses to race on a drug that treats the condition would be inhumane.
Shortly after winning the 2011 Belmont with Ruler on Ice, his trainer Kelly Breed addressed the topic.
”We have a horse that ran in the Kentucky Derby, Pants on Fire, he bled through Lasix,” Breen said. “And I know it seems like everybody talks about the problems with medication and horses, but when you have a horse that you think that highly of, and you have something that we know stops horses from bleeding in Lasix, I don’t understand why they’re trying to take it away.”
Fair Hill trainer and Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella were participants at the Belmont Summit. “I do believe that horses bleed and I know that Lasix helps,” Mandella said. “Racing would go on with or without Lasix. Without Lasix some horses wouldn’t be as good. But, is it inhumane to not treat them with Lasix?”
“I know without Lasix some of the horses in my barn wouldn’t be racing,” Motion added, “and it would be some of the better ones.”Beyond the Lasix injection on race days, many horses can get it two or three times in the weeks leading up to a race. It’s a healthy revenue stream from owners to veterinarians.
“We are paying a minimum of $100 million a year just for the use of Lasix alone, not counting the money we spend for “jugs” to revive horses after they have been on the powerful diuretic,” relates Hancock, the longtime Kentucky owner and breeder.
Hancock estimates if you toss in the cost of Bute and other veterinary charges, the figure mushrooms to $150 million a year.“What a nice bonus it would be if we could do away with the race day medications all together and have only trace levels in the blood—levels that are not performance enhancing.”
So what happens in other countries if a horse bleeds? In Hong Kong the horse must receive an official veterinary exam and is automatically banned from racing for three months. If the horse bleeds again, it could be banned for another three months or be forced to retire from racing. A third incident results in mandatory retirement. Many of the “bleeders” from other countries horses are sent to the U. S. to race.
Decreasing durability and other physical ailments of American thoroughbreds are reflected in the sharp decline in U. S. stallions purchased at auction by prominent overseas owners. The North American auction market for yearlings has plummeted by nearly 50 percent, from $561 million to $302 million in 2010. While there are many other reasons for the drop-off— foremost, the worldwide severe recession— those figures demonstrate more and more American horsemen are out of step with the rest of the racing world.
“European buyers are drifting away because we view the performance of U. S. horses with skepticism because of the medication policies,” observed Ireland’s Egan.
“The stallions are not comparable to ‘clean’ European stallions. They believe the genetic pool has been damaged. Not only bleeders but horses with wind problems are being bred and they’re passing on those traits.”
Team Valor International CEO Barry Irwin, owner of Derby winner Animal Kingdom, says he has favored purchasing horses outside of the U.S. because race day medication has made it difficult to evaluate thoroughbred performance on American tracks. Irwin supports the idea of a ban on all race day medication, “for the sake of public perception. “
Following the two-day summit at Belmont Park, the board of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium was slated to meet in late July to discuss the use or banning of Lasix.
The U. S. racing culture and industry is markedly distinct from that of other countries where grass racing and significantly less racing surely aids the health of their thoroughbreds.
Abandoning Lasix won’t come easy. But there are ways. Gretchen Jackson has one suggestion. Wipe the slate clean and keep moving forward. Weaning the thoroughbred population off raceday medication over time will clean up the gene pool, a most worthy goal for the racing industry’s long term health.
“Let’s start with two-year olds in 2012, no Lasix, no more,” she said. “They did the same thing in Argentina five years ago and it has worked out fine. It’s an idea.”