NY Times, The Rail
Beginning with the 2012 Breeders’ Cup, 2-year-olds will not be administered medication hours before they race for the first time in decades. The regulators of racing have seen the light from the horse and rider perspective. Extensive studies clearly indicate that drugs cause more trouble for racehorses and their riders than they alleviate. Lasix jurisdictions have significantly more breakdowns than jurisdictions where Lasix is not allowed. No prerace Lasix means no attending veterinarians with loaded syringes in the stall injecting the horses with drugs hours before they run. The dangerous and dubious charade of medicating racehorses before they compete is coming to a welcome end.
Science and research continue to reveal and demonstrate that raceday drugs have not been helpful to the safety of the sport. Drugs generally have not been helpful to any sport. Why veterinarians and others continue to advocate raceday drug use for competition horses is beyond sound reason. The only ones who benefit from racehorses being medicated on raceday are the attending veterinarians and, subsequently, the veterinary surgeons. Equine veterinarians have long lobbied for drugs to enhance racing, but the science continues to demonstrate that chronic use of raceday drugs degrades the quality and safety of racing while impoverishing the welfare of racehorses. Raceday medications increase the breakdown rate. After decades of racehorses suffering the devastating effects of untoward veterinary influence, raceday medication is on schedule to be eliminated in the next few years. Consider this a most beneficial measure for racehorses and horse racing.
In Europe, bleeding is managed with proper husbandry, feeding, and preparation of the horses rather than with the drug Lasix, or any other legal drugs. There, appropriate conditioning and husbandry measures maintain pulmonary health and endurance, eliminating reliance on medications to manage bleeding and unsoundness. Less medication translates to safer horse racing. Bleeding is best prevented by appropriate breeding, athletic development, abundant locomotion, husbandry, training, nutrition and conditioning rather than by drug use, which sets a grave precedent.
There is scientific validity that the drug Lasix prevents pulmonary hemorrhage, yes, but that is not an adequate reason to advocate its raceday use. Lasix begets a plethora of additional drug use. Wherever pre-race Lasix is permitted, additional drugs are administered to most all of the diuretically-infused racing horses by their trainers and attending veterinarians. Lasix allows and encourages a lot of drug use. It legitimized the stage for the medication mentality that has haunted racing in recent years with all the notable breakdowns, sudden deaths and wrecks.
Lasix or Salix is furosemide, a potent diuretic that dilutes the urine and lowers the pulmonary blood pressure. The drug alters the electrolyte balance of racing horses and makes them vulnerable to heat stroke and metabolic dysfunction. As well, chronic diuretic use interferes with locomotory abilities required to run biomechanically sound by altering cardiac function, muscle function, nerve function, and most every other physiologic function. Diuretics weaken horses. These days there is little doubt that pharmaceutically weakened horses are more vulnerable to breaking down. It is not surprising that Lasix jurisdictions have more breakdowns than drug-free jurisdictions. We should have known. Now we know.
No more Lasix is great news for horses. Endurance, durability, soundness, sway, turn of hoof and mettle will enter the betting and breeding parlance once again. No raceday medication means sounder, more durable racing. Sounder, safer racing can help sustain public interest and financial support for the sport. Horseplayers and the general public do not necessarily relish betting on medicated horses.
The racing competition in Europe flourishes without raceday medications. The increased quality of racing without drugs is readily apparent at racetracks across the Atlantic. The enhanced quality of drug-free running can be easily observed in many of their classic races. There, trainers must take care to properly nourish, condition, and enrich their charges without using drugs as a training crutch. It shows in nearly every race.
In two years, American racing jurisdictions are scheduled to join the rest of the racing horse world and eliminate Lasix in the United States and Canada. Running clean is running safer and fairer, as the Europeans and others have honorably demonstrated. Of course, honor when visiting America is a different thing, and the Europeans will drop their ethics to run on Lasix and all the other drugs still allowed at Churchill Downs in this years Breeders’ Cup. Although perhaps honorably intentioned while racing in England and France, the European trainers know how Lasix moves up a horse in America. As has long been the history of horse racing, honor with horses is one thing, and the quest for purse money still remains quite another.
Nonetheless, progress is at hand. The tide of drugs administered to American racehorses has crested and will soon be falling away altogether. The removal of anabolic steroids has already improved safety while allowing female racehorses to run with the ranks of males. The further flow of drugs into the veins and joints of horses will gradually ebb. Trainers will have to rely on knowledge, finesse, athletic development, horsemanship, nutrition, behavior, husbandry and their jockey to win a horse race, sort of like horse racing was always intended to be. Imagine that.
2012 will be the year in America where the culture of raceday medication begins to disappear. Horses at tracks everywhere will breathe great sighs of relief, as should their riders, drivers, supporters, advocates, players, writers and parlayers.
Good riddance to Lasix and all the drug use it has encouraged and facilitated. Good riddance to Lasix and all the electrolyte imbalances, metabolic dysfunctions, shortened careers, breakdowns and weaknesses the drug has caused willing runners.
There is nothing so fine as running clean and winning; nothing so fine as being truly the best horse; nothing so fine to win naturally and return to race again and hold sway.
Sid Gustafson, D.V.M., is a novelist and equine veterinarian specializing in thoroughbred sports medicine and equine behavior. He currently practices regulatory veterinary medicine, representing the safety and welfare of thoroughbred racehorses.