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.