Commentary: Lasix Industry An Out-Of-Control Juggernaut

by | 11.16.2015 | 10:07am

Now that the dust of American Pharoah's Classic victory has finally settled, it is time to take a look at the underlying story at this year's Breeders' Cup: the Lasix issue. The seemingly endless debate over the pros and cons of race-day medication was brought into sharp relief at Keeneland with the decision landing decidedly in the cons corner.

It is a result that has been largely ignored by most of the American racing industry, and for good reason. There are so many tangled webs in the American Lasix miasma that many people are skittish about speaking out, especially if they hold a position contrary to the owners and trainers associations, racetrack administrations, veterinarians and drug companies that profit by the manufacture and administration of the drug.

Only three of the 139 American-trained horses running in this year's thirteen Cup races ran without the aid of Lasix. That two of those three – Runhappy in the Sprint and Mongolian Saturday in the Turf Sprint – emerged victorious can hardly be interpreted as a coincidence. They were the only horses in their respective 14-runner fields running drug-free, yet they slammed all 26 of their longtime Lasix-using rivals, Runhappy setting a new six-furlong Keeneland track record of 1:08.58 in the process.

Their victories undercut the widely held theory in America – expressed so eloquently by Shug McGaughey in a recent interview – that Lasix is needed in America but not in Europe because horses in America are put under greater early pressure than their European counterparts.

Thoroughbreds that are put under the greatest early pressure anywhere in the world are American sprinters, yet Runhappy and Mongolian Saturday emerged victorious in the two Cup Sprints, both running clean. American hardboots, assembly line trainers and assorted Lasix lovers must have been wincing over their post-race bourbon and sodas. Their illusions about Lasix shattered, they had been upstaged by a pair of unheralded outsiders virtually unknown to the general racing public: Maria Borell, the unjustly persecuted trainer of Runhappy, and Enebish Ganbat, the trainer of Mongolian Saturday who hails from somewhere north of the Gobi Desert.

Their victories, emulating that of the Lasix-free, Michael Chang-trained Hong Kong invader Rich Tapestry in last year's Santa Anita Sprint Championship, in which he defeated two previous Breeders' Cup winners in Goldencents and Secret Circle, both long-time Lasix users, add substance to the growing suspicion that American racing has got it wrong on the Lasix issue.

If Borell, Ganbat and Chang can win races without injecting Lasix into their horses, why can't 99 percent of American trainers?

Those 99 percent who use Lasix either as a crutch or as a badge of conformism in thrall to the majority opinion are in denial as to the deleterious long-term effects of the drug. Can there be any doubt that the American Thoroughbred has deteriorated markedly since New York became the last jurisdiction to sanction its use in 1995? Twenty years later, not only do the overwhelming majority of American-bred, American-trained Thoroughbreds run on Lasix, but their sires and dams, their grandsires and granddams, and in some cases their great grandsires and great granddams, also ran on Lasix.

The Hydra-headed monster that is the Lasix industry is an out-of-control juggernaut. The grandstand observer or the simulcast viewer sees no difference between a horse running on Lasix and one that is not. In the early years of permissive Lasix use, there was the tell-tale performance boost a horse got when administered the drug for the first time. Now, most two-year-olds debut on the drug, so its presence is hardly noticed by the casual observer. Newcomers to racing might question the need for a column labeled “medication” on racing progams.

The victories of the Aidan O'Brien-trained Found in the Breeders' Cup Turf and Hit It a Bomb in the Juvenile Turf provided evidence of the first-time Lasix performance boost, with both horses showing great improvement over their previous outings.

Found, five-lengths ninth behind the Lasix-free Golden Horn in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe four weeks earlier, made it all up by getting half a length in front of her drug-free counterpart in the Turf. Hit It a Bomb, the winner of an insubstantial Listed race on the all-weather at lowly Dundalk three weeks earlier, jumped up to win an international Grade 1 on turf.

The only two-European-trained winners in this year's Cup, their performances will have been instantly recognizable to trainers throughout America who use the first-time Lasix tool in search of victory. Surely, American trainers must realize that these short-term benefits dissipate after repeated use.

Veterinary research has shown that the long-term effects on horses that use Lasix repeatedly is a shortening of their careers and an overall weakening of bone mass. Every time a horse is given Lasix, it leaches minerals from bones and upsets a very highly turned natural balance of electrolytes. A study published last year showed that horses take far longer to restore that balance that had been previously thought, with test subjects taking 72 hours to restore the calcium balance in their system upset by a racing dose of Lasix.

Repeated use of race-day Lasix has lengthened the recovery time between races. In 1975, just as Lasix was coming into widespread use in the United States, the average number of starts per year for an American thoroughbred was 10.23. Now, it's 6.32.

The big drug related stories at this year's Cup were the Lasix-free Runhappy and Mongolian Saturday. The anti-Lasix lobby, or to term it more positively, the pro-run clean lobby, has much to be grateful for to Ms. Borell and Mr. Ganbat, for they have shown that good trainers don't need Lasix to win races.

Gina Rarick is an American trainer based in Maisons-Laffitte, France, and the former racing correspondent at the International Herald Tribune. Alan Shuback is a former columnist and foreign correspondent at Daily Racing Form and The Sporting Life. 

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