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It seems as if the entire sports world is moving against drugs. But the pro-narco element still has a stronghold at the racetrack. There’s no big movement away from shooting up to cure what ails you, even losing.
May 21’s 130th Preakness Stakes had a full field of 14 horses. Every one of them had an “L” next to its name in the racing program. That means they were injected on race day with the drug Lasix, which ostensibly reduces internal bleeding during races.
Afleet Alex, the winning horse with the touchy-feely story about raising money for kids with cancer? He’s a Lasix junkie. Won’t leave the barn without taking the needle. Giacomo? The 50-1 shot who beat all his higher-falutin peers in the Kentucky Derby? Yeah, he got the same shot at Pimlico that he’d taken two weeks earlier, just before making a few folks very rich at Churchill Downs. He’ll get it again at the Belmont Stakes next week, as will the entire field.
Just about everybody on the Preakness undercard got shot up, too. As a matter of fact, in the 13 races that day, only two of the 130 entrants—Maryland-bred colt Easy Red in the second race and Reel Legend in the 10th—weren’t juiced. Neither finished in the money. Everybody else got a syringe full of Lasix.
Most horses also had “A”s by their names in the program, meaning they had gotten an additional shot or shots with what are called “adjunct medications,” in addition to Lasix.
It’s not just the big-name horses who get loaded on Lasix and its complementary compounds, either. Last Thursday, at Pimlico, when the bettors got back to choosing between the sort-of has-beens and never-will-bes that fill out Maryland cards every day that isn’t the third Saturday in May, 100 percent of the entrants earned an “L.”
That’s not how Lasix was supposed to be used. The drug, also known as Salix and by its generic name, furosemide, hit the marketplace in 1967 and was originally intended to combat human ailments such as congestive heart failure and kidney failure. It kicks the body’s kidneys into overdrive, and, by making a person, well, piss like a racehorse, flushes excess fluids from the body. Some nonexcess fluids, such as water, as well as nutrients and vitamins, go with the flow. Use of Lasix can lead to dangerous levels of sugar and calcium in the blood.
Shortly after its introduction to humans, some veterinarians found that Lasix offered a different sort of benefit to Thoroughbreds. The drug was said to alleviate symptoms of an equine ailment called exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging (EIPH), which basically causes bleeding through the nostrils during a workout as extreme as a horse race.
The Maryland Racing Commission approved the use of Lasix for Thoroughbreds in April 1974, making Maryland among the first states to do so. Others jumped on gradually. But the drug’s popularity really broke out of the barn in 1995, when the New York Racing Association (NYRA), one of the most powerful sanctioning bodies in the country, bowed to industry pressure for uniformity and made New York the last state to accept Lasix. Prior to the NYRA allowance, entrants to the Belmont Stakes, the final chapter in the Triple Crown races—the annual series for 3-year olds that, in the post-Seabiscuit world, has provided horses with their one and only shot to achieve superstardom—had to run drug-free, even after they’d run with Lasix in the Derby and Preakness.
“I think that kept a lot of owners from giving their horses Lasix, at least younger horses: just the idea that they wouldn’t be able to use it in the Belmont,” says Bill Heller, a New York handicapper and author of Run, Baby, Run: What Every Owner, Breeder & Handicapper Should Know About Lasix in Racehorses, which documents the increase in equine Lasix use. “But ever since New York caved in, the use of Lasix has
been an epidemic that nobody’s dealing with.”
Heller points out that when Belmont Park hosted the Breeders’ Cup card in 1995, just after New York lifted the Lasix ban, seven of 21 2-year-olds entered used the drug. By 2001, when the Breeders’ Cup returned to New York, the number of shot-up juveniles skyrocketed to 23 of 24.
“You going to tell me they’re all bleeders?” Heller says. “Give me
After all these years in the game, there is no medical consensus on whether Lasix actually alleviates EIPH. What has never been in dispute, at least among horseplayers and American horsemen, is that horses run better with a shot of Lasix than without. Though no hard and fast numbers exist to prove an advantage, no piece of minutiae in the program will attract gamblers’ attention to a horse quicker than an “L1” notation in the racing form, meaning the horse will be running with Lasix for the first time.
“For anybody to say Lasix doesn’t improve performance is ridiculous,” says Heller.
One theory on why Lasix is a performance-enhancing drug is that the same diuretic impact it has on humans gives horses a racing edge. Thoroughbreds can lose up to 70 pounds of fluid through use of Lasix. “This is a sport, remember, where trainers will all flock to an apprentice jockey just because an apprentice gets a 5-pound weight allowance over [journeyman] riders,” says Heller. “So it’s common sense that they’ll want something that empties their horse out and lets them run with less weight. But that flushes out a lot of other stuff, too.”
Another theory, which has been around since before Lasix was approved in Maryland, is that the drug, like any serious diuretic, can be used to mask the presence of painkillers, amphetamines, and other harmful chemicals in a horse’s system.
Lasix has its proponents. James Casey, a veterinarian and veteran owner and trainer at Maryland tracks, says that the chemistry and biology behind “why Lasix works hasn’t been explained.”
“But it works,” he says.
Casey says Lasix’s effectiveness as a drug-masking agent has also yet to be proved. And any negative effects caused by Lasix use, such as lowered blood pressure or dehydration, he says, will be strictly short-term, as long as the horse “drinks some water and eats some hay” soon after running a race. All of Casey’s horses now run on Lasix.
But Heller is among those who would argue that the decline of horse racing in this country coincides with the Lasix era—and not coincidentally. He says the drug culture that now pervades the sport has hurt horses and cheated fans.
“The average number of starts has gone down dramatically since the ’60s,” says Heller. “Careers are shorter, and you can chart it on a graph and it’ll dovetail exactly with the introduction of Lasix in racing. What that means to the fan is, we don’t get greatness in our horses, we just get glimpses of greatness.”
Racing authorities in racing hotbeds such as England, Ireland, and France have banned Lasix since its introduction and have given no suggestion that they might relent on its use. But as long as the two-legged members of the U.S. racing community remain convinced that horses run better with Lasix, and don’t cede the decisionmaking power to those with four legs, the drug’s use among Thoroughbreds will likely remain near 100 percent over here.
Animal-rights activists have actually begun using the drugged-up state of domestic racehorses to fight another battle: to prevent the slaughter of horses for food. So far, that tack hasn’t taken, however.
“I was telling a member of Congress that all of this horse meat that is being exported is contaminated to no end, just full of drugs,” says Chris Heyde, a policy analyst for the Society for Animal Protective Legislation, a Virginia-based animal-rights group. “But I hear something like ‘Good! Let the French eat it!’”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photo by Charles Steck.