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History lesson: drug usage comes full circle

The recent Penn National “interstate fraud” arrests, coming one day after a Senate House subcommittee hearing on H.R. 2012—the racing bill that would introduce Federal oversight and phase out Lasix—renewed cries for drug reform and featured a well-publicized and impassioned plea from Arthur Hancock for the government to protect horses by doing away with Lasix and bute.

If you’ve been following racing for as long as I have (since the early 1970s, for some 40-odd years), some of this might have sounded vaguely familiar. During the fall of 1974, New York racing was sullied by a rash of drug positives, betting scandals, and battery usage that had the FBI all over NYRA like the proverbial cheap suit. Insiders then were alarmed that Federal intervention was a possibility—unlike now, when many like Mr. Hancock are ardent supporters of it, and why not?—and measures were instituted at the state level to try and clean up the game. An important development at the time was the post-race blood test, which replaced the saliva test. The urine test, of course, remained in place.

At the time, you’ll recall, New York was supposedly “drug-free” and horses raced on “hay, oats, and water,” as the mantra went. It wasn’t until 1995 that Lasix was approved in New York, though the drug in 1974 was legally available in several states, including Maryland.

Steve Cady, in a September 27, 1974, New York Times article titled, “Drug Tests on Horses Intensified,” wrote: “Under New York Racing regulations, no medication of any kind, even an aspirin, can be administered after a horse is entered in a race. Entries usually close at 10:30 A.M. the day before the race. Yet veterinarians often visit horses the morning of a race, and critics of the no-medication rule charge that certain medications are being given.”

Around the first week of December in 1974, some three months after the medication scandals broke, leading New York trainer Frank “Pancho” Martin, who’d trained Sham to second-place finishes behind Secretariat in the Derby and Preakness the year before, was suspended and handed a 60-day ban for two drug infractions. One of them was for the presence of Lasix in the horse Long Hunt.

In a December 4, 1974, Times article, Michael Strauss wrote, “Repeatedly declaring his innocence, Martin said that Dr. Manuel Gilman, the track’s examining veterinarian, ‘was aware’ that the trainer planned to have Lasix administered to Long Hunt, who is a ‘bleeder.’ Lasix, it is well known by horsemen, is an agent used throughout the racing world as a blood coagulant to stop horses from bleeding while competing.”

Later in the article, Strauss wrote about the stewards who ruled on Martin, quoting the experienced steward Nathaniel J. (Bud) Hyland, who didn’t question Martin’s integrity but instead the withdrawal time of the medication: “…'[Martin] may have run into a situation where there had been a build-up of the medications in the systems of the horses. Both of them may have failed to shake off the signs of the applications within the prescribed time.”

What’s obviously interesting here is that Lasix was used in New York in 1974, well before it would be legalized in 1995; the steward acknowledged this and its usage implicity; Dr. Gilman knew the horse was being treated; and the writer wrote freely that the medication’s benefits were known to horsemen internationally.

No secrets here.

In other words, Martin wasn’t the only one using Lasix at the time, and an examination of newspaper clippings from the era will confirm this. Indeed, it’s  long been rumored that a famous Kentucky Derby winner from the 1960s that went on to a stellar stud career had used the drug to combat bleeding. Despite the numerous Lasix studies that prove and disprove its efficacy and the divisive arguments of recent times that both laud and condemn the drug, what’s evident is that horsemen believe it works—then and now. And it’s been used for a much longer time than anyone cares to admit—at least 40 to 50 years, based on this information.

This Lasix divide sits front and center on the pages of H.R. 2012 and may stall the bill from ultimately moving to a committee and then to the House and Senate. If that happens, it would be a shame as other parts of this bill for drug policies and testing and oversight contain excellent measures for reform and may have consensus support.

In a Joe Durso piece in the July 4, 1976, edition of the Times that easily could have been headlined today—“More Purses, More Races, More Injured Horses”—comes this quote from a jockey that really hits home: “‘It seems to me that horses are much softer-boned now. They’re having trouble just getting to the races. It could be something like the medication given to the sire and dam. Maybe they’re just not as tough as they used to be.'”

So, even in 1976, it’s openly acknowledged that the sires and dams of those horses were on medication!

The jock quoted, by the way, is successful rider Robyn Smith. She had more to say that sounds eerily familiar: “‘If they do get to the races, it seems that in the last couple of years a lot of horses have been worn out getting to the Kentucky Derby. And those that do it get worn out after the Derby. Their trainers are under more pressure now. They can’t pass up the big purses and the big chance to syndicate the horses.'”

How’s that for a full circle?

To break through, this industry needs to find consensus, one step at a time, and shrill rhetoric that ignores history isn’t going to cut it.

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8 thoughts on “History lesson: drug usage comes full circle

  1. fmitchell07 says:

    It will be a shame if Lasix is the pin that stops the gears of change for overall drug reform. We need it and need a system that conscientiously evaluates how an equine athletes perform and what medications provide a proper benefit for them.

  2. Sal Carcia says:

    I remember lasix being used illegally at Suffok Downs in 70s. Also, I remember trainers being given a 24 hr. warning before a stable inspection. Even with the warning syringes were often found by the inspectors.

  3. Hi Sid

    Thank you for bringing attention to the ongoing issues of Lasix. I appreciate your view that “parts of the proposed bill in congress (H.R. 2012) for drug policies and testing and oversight contain excellent measures for reform…” Your essay is informative and I enjoyed learning about some of the newspaper articles written in the past.

    But I am sorry to say that you may have inadvertently contributed more to the confusion than to the clarification of this important situation.

    First: Lasix (furosemide) is not a ‘coagulant’. A coagulant thickens blood, which is absolutely not the desired effect. Furosemide is a diuretic used to alleviate fluid pressure around the heart for people with heart disease and high blood pressure. The idea is to thin the blood under the assumption that blood pressure is decreased as it pumps through the lungs and decreases the incidences of capillaries bursting. That condition is commonly referred to as EIPH (Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage).

    To demonstrate the original intended use of Lasix consider that when paramedics arrive to the aid of a heart attack victim, that victim is immediately given a shot of Lasix to help relieve the heart from water pressure.

    Regarding the history of Lasix in horse racing, your presentation seems one-sided and could be unintentionally misleading by referring to the newspaper articles you describe.

    It is simply not true that in the 1960s and 70s many or most trainers were administering Lasix out of a concern for bleeding. Because of the diuretic properties the horse loses up to 30 pounds of fluid weight. And as we know, the decreased weight can matter in the stretch – especially when racing against horses not using Lasix. This weight loss was later confirmed in Dr. Hinchcliffe’s 2009 study in South Africa titled “Efficacy of furosemide for prevention of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage in Thoroughbred racehorses”.

    In the 1970s, Andrew Beyer noted that horses in Maryland coming from mediocre barns were suddenly winning by 10 or more links overnight. It later turned out that these trainers were using Lasix. It is hard to believe that these trainers were using Lasix out of some humanitarian concern. They were using it to enhance performance. Bill Heller wrote the definitive expose on the reality of Lasix and its abuse in his book “Run, Baby, Run”. Horses that have never bled receive Lasix – and that continues today. Over and over in the book trainers talk about how the weight loss matters.

    All of this is consistent with my own discussions with trainers and veterinarians at several racetracks. Trainers at the very top of American racing, winning triple crown legs and Breeders Cup races, tell me that they have never seen a bleeder of any real worry – most of these trainers have been in the game from 35 to 50 years. Every one of them speaks of the weight loss as being the real issue. Veterinarians that work for some of the top barns in the country tell me that they see only one or two horses out of every twenty that show any signs of bleeding. This begs an obvious question: if only 5% to 10% of horses show any signs of bleeding – then why do we allow this drug to be used on all racehorses on race days?

    I will tell you why. Alex Waldrop, President and CEO of the NTRA gave the welcome speech at the “International Summit on Race Day Medication, EIPH, and the Racehorse” at Belmont Park June 13, 2011. To my surprise, he claimed that because it was virtually impossible to police the use of Lasix, the separate state racing jurisdictions decided to create a level playing field by legalizing it. Think about that: it was legalized to neutralize cheaters – not to alleviate bleeding. Bleeding is basically offered as the “presenting argument” but the truth is that no one wants to give an edge to anyone, so they in turn use Lasix to make sure that their opponent has no advantage.

    Clearly some horses do bleed from the stress of training or racing. The myth is that Lasix stops the bleeding. That is false. Hinchcliffe’s study demonstrated that there was a possibility that some bleeding could be decreased (mitigated).

    Further to that, clearly most of the horses did bleed through the Lasix in Hinchcliffe’s study. And that seems to be a topic no one wants to deal with: how many horses that do bleed, do so through the Lasix? For example, trainer Kelly Breen reported that Pants on Fire bled through the Lasix in the Kentucky Derby.

    The mention of Maryland as an example of regulation is unfortunate. To this day they allow “Adjunct” in addition to Lasix on race day. Every single veterinarian on the panel at the Belmont summit – those both for and those against Lasix – agreed that the use of Adjunct had no basis in science and that some of the adjuncts were in fact harmful. The transcripts and the DVD of the summit are available from the NTRA.

    I once witnessed a horse in training at Laurel Park several years ago on a 10 degrees December morning. The trainer is a friend of mine, and he had talked the owner into ceasing the use of Lasix. After the workout – blood trickled out of the horse’s nose. The owner went ballistic. I held the horse while they scoped; it turned out that the horse didn’t have EIPH; the vet said that there wasn’t a drop of blood in the trachea. The horse had burst a nasal blood vessel – and in the area of the face, it was clear that the horse had likely hit its head somewhere, likely in the stall. It makes you wonder how many cases of such bleeding occur that have nothing to do with EIPH.

    As far as what a trainer ‘believes’ – I would say that many trainers have good intentions, but unfortunately many have no idea what they are doing with many medications. They are usually throwing darts into the dark to see what works: to enhance performance – not make the horse healthy. Does this apply to all trainers? Certainly not – but a lot of trainers operate on ‘beliefs’ that have little to do with reality or science. A lot of veterinarians have lost their credibility in recent times given the overwhelming amounts of pharmaceuticals administered on the backstretch these days. Perhaps you have heard the old saw, “Needle in, money out.” Did any of the articles mention veterinarians offering different views? Given that the trainers paid the vets, then the veterinarians quoted were likely biased. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

    You state that, “To break through, this industry needs to find consensus, one step at a time, and shrill rhetoric that ignores history isn’t going to cut it.” Unfortunately your essay seems to ignore some significant history too and by this one-sided account possibly adds to the confusion keeping us from reaching a consensus.

    Sean Kerr, 5R Racehorse Stable

    • HI Sean/Sid, I haven’t heard from any of racing’s groups or individuals, the suggestion that a commissioned study be done by expert, and unbiased scientists whose collective opinion would be respected by most REASONABLE stakeholders . Further, I can’t see how the Sub Committee on H.R. 2012 can reach any respectable conclusion on the Lasix matter without such information. I must be missing something. I’d love to hear both your opinions. Lou

  4. The quote from the jockey in 1976 says it all – horses getting softer, probably because of breeding doped horses to doped horses. So instead of moving toward measures to stop the doping, America went the other way and sanctioned it. So instead of generations of stronger thoroughbreds, you’re getting weaker ones.

    Anyone who works in this business isn’t so naive to think that cheating doesn’t happen. But if the rules stipulated, as they do in most of the world, that no medication can be found in the horse on race day, and if penalties were meaningful, it would be a start. Lasix is the lid to Pandora’s Box, and once that is opened, everything else creeps in. U.S. horses are so over-medicated by so-called therapeutic drugs contra-indicating one another it’s amazing most of them can walk out of their box in the morning. And most trainers dont know any other way to train – they use everything they can, because that’s what the next guy is doing and you can’t risk giving him the edge.

    Lasix is helpful on a tiny percentage of horses – for the rest of them, it is a performance enhancer pure and simple. That tiny percentage of horses who are true bleeders and wouldn’t be able to compete without the use of Lasix should not, then, be competing.

    It’s not impossible. I train in Europe. And yes, I’m sure people cheat. But aggressive in- and out-of-competition testing coupled with extremely severe penalties make it not worth the risk for most trainers. And the racing results bear this out – I’m able to win races with clean horses, so I doubt I’m competing against doped ones.

    • Mr Rarick many would agree with you that the modern racing trainer get their licences to train, without any examination of their ability or experience, that is why they need all the assistance they can find (drugs)
      It does make you wonder how the old horse trainers of the period 1900-1930 kept their runners fit and well, to travel by railroad cars all aroiund the USA without medication, just the normal bucket of water and the bag of hay, running 3 or 4 times a month.
      Take, Westy Hogan and Jack Atkin.. two “iron” horses.. invariably racing 20 times a season for five or six years, they had no pretension of “class” just good handicappers.. Westy covered a daughter of Jack in 1927 producing a filly who became the great grandam of Understanding, the damsire of Sunday Silence, it seems we owe a lot to the ability of the old time trainers. who knew more about the health of horses than today’s vets.

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