The more things change… the more they remain the same. In a split vote this past March, the Breeders’ Cup Board of Directors reversed a previously agreed and stated position that all races in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup World Championships will be conducted without race-day furosemide, better known as Lasix.
Under pressure from many trainers who support the use of the anti-bleeding drug, the Breeders’ Cup board members voted to maintain the 2012 policy which allowed the drug. In a close vote, the board did agree to continue the ban on the drug in 2-year-old races as it did last year.
"We realize that there has been great divisiveness in our industry over medications rules, but joining together in the common goal of independent scientific research of the effects of race-day medications coupled with industry pursuit of uniform rules, will move us toward eliminating such divisions within our industry," said Tom Ludt, Breeders’ Cup board chairman.
"Our board feels this measure is the most practical course of action at this time."
The decision is a significant step backward in the effort to limit race-day use of Lasix. It is a diuretic that can limit exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH) in many horses during workouts and races. For four decades, it has been administered to racehorses in the U. S. about four hours before they are due to race, almost as a matter of routine.
The Breeders’ Cup 2013 ban was adopted two years ago with the support of many high-profile American breeders as well the international racing community where race-day use of Lasix is largely banned.
Among those prominent owners/breeders are Chester County’s George Strawbridge, Jr., and Barry Irwin who owns a barn at the Fair Hill Training Center. Strawbridge resigned from the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association in protest.
Irwin is CEO of the racing partnership Team Valor that owns 2011 Kentucky Derby winner and 2013 Dubai World Cup winner Animal Kingdom. Animal Kingdom, who raced on Lasix his entire career in America, scored an impressive victory in the Dubai race without the use of the drug on March 30.
Animal Kingdom’s dominating performance in the Dubai World Cup demonstrated that the best American ten furlong performers can win the world's richest race ($10 million) on a synthetic surface and without the benefit of race-day medications.
"When he went clear in the straight I thought, I hope this horse doesn't bleed like every American told me he would do without Lasix," said Irwin, a vociferous opponent of race-day drugs.
“I am thrilled to death to win a race like this without medication. It means a lot to me, and to the horse and to the breeding industry.”
Lasix was first approved for race-day use in the mid-1970s. Roughly 95 percent of all American thoroughbreds race on Lasix and they’ve been given the drug from their very first start at the racetrack. So no one knows how many of them would bleed enough to impact performance without Lasix.
Last month Dr. Larry Soma, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, reiterated the results of research that showed that Lasix has not demonstrated any efficacy in stopping bleeding. Soma cited a long known study at Ohio State that showed that horses administered with the drug run faster and finish better than horses who do not receive a race-day injection.
“It doesn’t stimulate performance, but there is weight loss, perhaps 18 to 20 pounds,” said Soma, who testified for the prohibition of Lasix to congressional leaders in Washington in a hearing entitled "Breeding, Drugs, and Breakdowns" in 2008.
“Generally, horses (on Lasix) tend to earn more money and win more races. These are absolute red flags.” Soma sees an ergonomic effect in a horse when racing at a lighter weight. It is not a problem for sprinters, he says, but for long distance runners there can be a problem with dehydration.
“I’m not sure why American trainers feel so strongly,” Soma noted. “I know a lot believe it does reduce hemorrhaging, but the effect is minimal. In Europe horses are considered bleeders if there is a visual observation of blood at the nostrils. They don’t scope their horses. You find a very lower percentage of horses that bleed.
“I’m not surprised by the Breeders’ Cup reversal of its policy. This is no longer a medical issue. It is a power struggle.”
Race-day use of Lasix has been the most divisive American horse-racing issue over the past two decades. It has torn the industry apart. Proponents and opponents abound. Strong arguments can be marshaled for and against the use of Lasix on racing days. Like the majority of trainers, Santa Anita-based John Sadler welcomed the change.
“It’s what everybody has been hoping would happen,” said Sadler, one of the most vocal critics of the restrictive Breeders’ Cup policy on Lasix.
“We have an inexpensive medication that can prevent the bleeding from happening and I think we should use it,” added veteran trainer Dale Romans. “I think the horse should come first.”
According to a report in the Daily Racing Form, Breeders’ Cup officials and board members felt the lack of a substantive industry-wide movement over the last two years to restrict the administration of Lasix was the leading factor in the Breeders’ Cup’s decision to suspend the policy. However, other factors, particularly financial considerations, played significant roles.
When board members pored over financial projections for this year’s Breeders’ Cup and looked to the 2014 event, they could not avoid the fact that the anti-Lasix movement in the U.S. had not only failed to advance its goal, but also that many of its supporters had actually retreated in the face of an unrelenting pushback from U.S. horsemen.
Earlier in 2012, the American Graded Stakes Committee rescinded a controversial rule that would have denied grades to any race that allowed race-day Lasix. And only one state, Kentucky, had passed even a limited ban on race-day Lasix use – only in stakes races – beginning with juveniles in 2014. Horsemen were confident they could get the rule nullified.
“At the time [of the 2011 vote], the American Graded Stakes Committee, the Jockey Club, and a lot of states – obviously Kentucky, which I know well – said that they were going to go Lasix-free,” said Ludt, also a former member of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. “But we all know what happened. The Jockey Club backed out of the push. The Graded Stakes Committee backed out of the push. Looking back, if you looked at it like it was a race-- we saw that we were the only ones that had left the gate.”
Team Valor’s Irwin pulled no punches about the Breeders’ Cup’s recent reversal of a full ban on Lasix at its world championships on Nov. 1-2 at Santa Anita.
"I'm more interested in not having any drugs in racing at all, so that everybody can play on a level field and we can be more in line with international sport," Irwin says. "All other sports are getting rid of medication, and we're stubbornly hanging on to one drug."
Last fall a coalition of more than sixty owners launched an experiment into Lasix-free racing with their two year olds. While not enough time has gone by judge the results, the initial news was encouraging.
“I’m totally comfortable with it,” said veteran trainer Al Stall, Jr. “I’m not doing anything different in their training. If a horse bleeds, then we’ll probably just give him time off.”
Team Valor’s Irwin said that he has owned 500 horses over the past 26 years, and that “only three” had ever bled from the nose while racing, while “about ten” had chronic problems with bleeding.
“Basically, I want to return to old-fashioned horsemanship,” Irwin said. “If a horse bleeds really bad we’ll just give it a break. It’s just not the problem people make it out to be. Basically you’ve got a bunch of people using scare tactics to support the continued legal administration of the drug on race-day.”
Britain's champion conditioner John Gosden trains horses for Strawbridge in England. He spent the first eleven years of his career at Santa Anita. Gosden sees both sides of the argument, though he would welcome a more European approach to medication in America.
"There's no doubt that Lasix improves a horse's performance,” Gosden told the Guardian newspaper at the Breeders’ Cup in 2012. “One basic reason is that it reduces body weight [via fluid loss]. It also reduces pressure on the capillaries, so there's no doubt that as a drug it helps horses to run faster.”
Opponents of Lasix say the short-term benefits in racing are overwhelmed by the long term effect of the drug-- worsening and expanding the excessive bleeding that is certainly harmful to the breed.
"We now go to the sales in Kentucky and you're looking at six or seven generations of horses that have raced on quite strong medication,” Gosden maintained. “If you're having a so-called world championship, from that point of view you probably need to have it drug-free. It's an argument that will go on, but it's a concern to a lot of us that the American thoroughbred is not the tough creature of old, that is for sure."
Legendary Storm Cat Dies at age 30
Storm Cat, the Thoroughbred stallion who once commanded one of the highest breeding fees in North America, died on April 24 at Overbrook Farm in Lexington. Known for precocious and classy horses that dominated yearling buyers’ list, Storm Cat had a profound influence on the thoroughbred breed.
Foaled and raised at Marshall Jenney’s Derry Meeting Farm in Cochranville, Pa., Storm Cat was sired by Storm Bird out of the Secretariat mare Terlingua. As a young stallion he went from being dismissed by breeders, in part because of his off-set knees, to setting a standard that ranks with the likes of his grandsire Northern Dancer.
After standing for $30,000 his first season at stud in 1988, Storm Cat went on to command a high of $500,000 at his peak and sired champions on both sides of the Atlantic while inspiring multi-million-dollar bidding wars for his foals.
Trained by Chester County’s Jonathan Sheppard, as a 2-year-old in 1985, he won the Grade I Young America Stakes at Meadowlands and finished second by a short nose to Tasso in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Storm Cat had surgery for bone spurs in one of his knees that December, which caused the horse to miss the Kentucky Derby and race only twice as a 3-year-old before being retired.
“He had that will to win, that competitiveness, and he passed it on to his offspring,” Sheppard noted. “To be associated with a horse that became a legend in the breeding ranks is pretty neat.”
His all-time leading earner, multiple Group-1 winner and European champion Giant’s Causeway, has developed into his leading son at stud at Coolmore’s stallion operation, Ashland Stud in Lexington, Ky. Six times Storm Cat topped the prestigious Keeneland September Yearling Sale, and he was leading sire by average eight times. Of the ten highest-priced colts ever to sell there, seven were sired by Storm Cat.
Storm Cat’s runners collectively earned more than $128 million and included 180 graded stakes winners, among them classic winners Tabasco Cat (1994 Preakness and Belmont) and Sardula (1994 Kentucky Oaks). He sired five Breeders’ Cup winners, including the 1999 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Cat Thief for Overbrook, and is that event’s leading sire by starters and money won, with 44 Breeders’ Cup starters having earned $8,866,300. Among his offspring were 91 yearlings that sold for more than $1 million.
Storm Cat was euthanized due to complications from old age. He is buried at Overbrook Farm, his grave marked by a life-sized bronze statue of himself.