With so much attention focused on the drug test that could lead to the disqualification of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, there’s been barely a peep about how American racing managed to get through a Triple Crown season with all of its participants competing free of race-day furosemide, the anti-bleeding medication better known as Lasix.
It wasn’t just the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes that were run Lasix-free. Official qualifying points races for the Derby also were run with a Lasix ban (or, in some cases, if owners and trainers chose to have the diuretic given to their horses, those horses would not qualify for points).
Grindstone was the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby without being administered Lasix four hours prior to the race. That was in 1996, when five of the 19 Derby starters raced Lasix-free. Since then, an increasing number of Derbies has been run with 100% of the starters competing on Lasix, the only recent exceptions being foreign-based runners.
The move toward Lasix-free racing of 2-year-olds in 2020 and stakes races in 2021 came about two years ago when a coalition of racetracks and industry organizations issued a statement saying they were committed to more closely aligning U.S. medication policies with international standards. Lasix is not permitted on race day in Europe, Asia, or Australia/New Zealand and is being phased out in some Latin American countries.
There was opposition to the change, led by the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which sued the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, Churchill Downs and Keeneland. The horsemen’s organization claimed its members would suffer “irreparable injury” if their horses were required to race without Lasix. A judge ruled against the HBPA.
Horses will experience exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, whether they are treated on race-day with Lasix or not. A scientific study from South Africa published in 2009 showed that race-day administration of the drug reduced the incidence and severity of EIPH. But 57% of the horses in that study still experienced EIPH after being treated with Lasix (compared to 79% given a saline solution as a placebo).
There were warnings from some Lasix advocates that it would be inhumane to not treat a horse with the drug, that we would start seeing more horses bleeding from the nose when they come back to be unsaddled after a race.
For the most part, the protests against the change have been much ado about nothing. Horses have bled, just as before, the majority of incidents detected through a post-race endoscopic examination. Visible bleeding from the nose has not occurred with the frequency many predicted would happen. Trainers have adjusted and racing goes on. Some have said their horses bounce back more quickly after a race without Lasix because they haven’t sustained the loss of fluids that result from administration of the diuretic.
This isn’t a game changer. Prohibiting Lasix will not get rid of horse racing’s drug problems. But it’s a step in the right direction and a further sign that the liberal medication policies of the past involving anti-inflammatories, anabolic steroids, bronchodilators and other so-called therapeutic drugs were misguided and a disservice to the sport.
That’s my view from the eighth pole.
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