As a new year begins, some racing jurisdictions will begin considering or implementing a furosemide (Lasix) phaseout. In December, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission voted to approve a partial phaseout starting for 2-year-olds of 2020. Earlier last year, The Stronach Group and the New York Racing Association, together with Churchill Downs Inc., Los Alamitos, and Del Mar, announced plans to begin a phaseout in 2020. No doubt the phaseout process, if it happens, will prompt much wailing and gnashing of teeth from those on both sides of the medication debate, as it has done for many years now.
Of course, there was a time when horses raced without Lasix because it hadn't been approved for race day use yet. Though many in the business may not know or remember now, the introduction of Lasix in the 1970s was not without debate. Much of that debate was nearly identical to op/eds and social media posts on the subject today. There was also a movement several years later toward federal legislation that would have prohibited race day administration of drugs, including Lasix.
Lasix use in racehorses was first publicized in the early 1970s, around the time the fiber-optic endoscope first allowed veterinarians to see whether horses had blood in their tracheas after a race. Controversial veterinarian Dr. Alex Harthill admitted to using furosemide on Fear A Bit, a runner on the undercard of the 1974 Kentucky Derby, at about 2 p.m. on race day. The horse ran significantly better than he had in his past several starts and officials wanted to know why. It could've been the removal of a bar shoe right before the race, Harthill reasoned, or it could've been that the horse's exercised-induced pulmonary hemhorrage (EIPH) was finally under control. At the time, the stewards couldn't find that Harthill violated any rules.
Prior to that, if a trainer knew about furosemide, it was from the test barn, where it was sometimes given to encourage a horse to give a urine sample after the race.
States went back and forth on whether to allow Lasix on race day. At one point, Maryland permitted it and declared the drug's use or non-use was a confidential matter only the trainer should know about. The state changed its policies after two horseplayers took the Maryland Racing Commission to court, arguing the drug had the ability to impact performance and as such, bettors should be made aware of it.
By early 1975, race day Lasix was legal in 14 states, and tracks began printing symbols indicating the use of both Lasix and phenylbutazone (bute) in their programs. One by one, states began accepting the new reality, some with more gusto than others – all except one. New York did not permit race day Lasix until 1995, some two decades after other jurisdictions. That meant for 20 years the Triple Crown was run under two different Lasix policies.
Some horses did not compete in the third leg of the Triple Crown specifically because of the policy. In 1983, Desert Wine skipped the Belmont Stakes because of the no-Lasix rule, and Summer Squall did the same in 1990; Gate Dancer, Unbridled, and Alysheba all ran without it and turned in uncharacteristic performances (though Alysheba's trainer Jack Van Berg would later say he believed Lasix had nothing to do with it).
All the while, trainers, tracks, veterinarians, and opinion writers debated whether or not the drug (which they all seemed to know was here to stay) was really such a good idea for racing.
The arguments then followed similar themes to what you hear today. Pro-Lasix advocates asserted the drug was a necessary therapeutic for bleeders and not giving it to horses that needed it was tantamount to abuse. Anti-Lasix advocates criticized the optics of so many horses running on race-day medication, fretted about its masking potential, and questioned the long-term impacts on the breed and the sport.
“It has been recommended by many owners – Bob Levy, who owns Bet Twice is an example – and writers and officials that Lasix be banned in all graded stakes, or at least in all Grade 1 stakes,” wrote Art Grace in The Miami News in August 1988, specifically citing Steven Crist as an early Lasix resister. “I disagree. Why eliminate horses like Lost Code and Cutlass Reality and Alysheba and Private Terms because they are bleeders? There are few enough outstanding horses as it is.”
In a 1990 Newsday column, writer Paul Moran made clear his feelings on the subject.
“Racing wears Lasix like a festering, self-inflicted wound on the end of its nose opened by the ax of greed and stamped with the imprimatur of every racing commission in the nation except New York's,” wrote Moran, who expressed skepticism at whether the drug even accomplished its alleged purpose of reducing EIPH. (The research has more or less reached the conclusion now, after a number of contradicting studies, that it does.)
Steven Crist, who by the mid-1990s had made the transition from journalist to vice president of the New York Racing Association, spent many years writing that Lasix was a “cloud” that hung over horses' resumes. When he became racetrack management, Crist either caved or simply saw the writing on the wall, depending on who you ask. By the time Lasix was allowed on race day in New York, Belmont had cut its race week from six days to five, and the state's tracks were said to be operating in the red due in part to a reduced horse population.
“This was progress toward reality,” Andrew Beyer quotes Crist as saying in a June 1995 Washington Post column. “There is a national horse shortage in this country, and it's more important for us to put on a respectable product than cling to a philosophical position. Besides, this is no longer a debatable point in the rest of the country, and it's important to have some uniformity.”
There were a few years in the 1980s when it had looked as though New York's policy would become the norm and not the exception. In 1979, a bill called the Drug Free Horse Racing Act was circulated in Congress by the Humane Society of the United States, replaced the next year by The Corrupt Horse Racing Practices Act. When the Act failed to make it out of committee in 1980, it was brought forward again in 1981 and the Senate held hearings on it in 1982. Attorney Edward S. Bonnie reviewed the history of this effort at federal legislation in a 1982 article in the Kentucky Law Journal.
“Even before the circulation of the 1979 Act, persons close to the pulse of the horse racing industry could easily read the signs of mounting pressure from humane groups, certain state racing commissioners and other private interest groups within the industry for changes in the medication rules of most states,” Bonnie writes.
Then, in a footnote, he adds: “The frustrations of those who earnestly believed that the 'control medication' rules implemented by most of the racing states were allowing owners, trainers and veterinarians to subject horses to inhumane treatment burst on the national scene in a segment of the CBS television show 60 Minutes on May 13, 1979. Harry Reasoner presided over the 16-minute segment which featured jockeys, racing commissioners, chemists, horsemen's representatives and trainers. The segment shows excerpts from patrol films which pictured horses and jockeys falling during races and served to showcase the highly emotional medication issue. This segment on 60 Minutes became the focal point for humane groups, many divergent interests within the federal and state bureaucracies and the conflicting interests within the horse business.”
In fact, the Corrupt Horse Racing Practices Act was far harsher than the most recent incarnation of federal racing legislation. The Act deemed the drugging or numbing of a racehorse ahead of a race to be the promotion of criminal fraud, misleading to the wagering public and potential buyers, an unreasonable injury risk to horses and jockeys, and declared it cruelty to horses. The bill prohibited the administration of any foreign substance to a horse before a race, required pre- and post-race testing and storage of frozen samples for later analysis. The bill allowed for criminal and civil penalties, including prison sentences for trainers, racetrack operators, and owners with fines ranging from $10,000 to $25,000.
While the current Horseracing Integrity Act tasks a national and non-governmental organization with drug testing for racing, the 1980 bill would have appointed the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to oversee testing activities. The Act also carried a hefty budget to pay for those tasks — $5 million, which in today's money would be over $15.6 million – harvested from fees charged to racetracks.
We know how the story ended – the Corrupt Horse Racing Practices Act didn't get out of the gate. Although the industry had banded together to support the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978 a few years before, there wasn't the same kind of universal support for this kind of intervention. Instead, the American Horse Council called together a meeting of leaders in racing in 1979, where they resolved to solve the problem themselves, without the federal government's help.
Bonnie's conclusion in his 1982 article was essentially that the industry didn't want outside intervention, but it also seemed unlikely that states with different economic positions would come together to adopt the same rules of their own volition.
“Some states will desire to impose more stringent rules, but most, if not all, states will have to accept a minimum rule,” Bonnie wrote. “If the danger is apparent enough, the parties will forge a compromise measured by what each party has to lose by federal intervention.”
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