|Daily Racing Form|
|Tuesday, August 13
|Is Lasix all it's cracked up to be?|
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
It's been a long time since Lasix was in the news or even the subject of any debate. Controversy has been replaced by complacency. And, now, there are a handful of things that most every North American race horse has in common: They have four legs, a mane, a tail and run on Lasix.
The sweeping use of Lasix represents one of the most dramatic changes ever concerning the way the game is played. Racing went from a sport in which all drugs were prohibited to one in which the vast majority of competitors are on one particular drug, the diuretic Lasix, which is supposed to control bleeding. But is that necessarily a good thing? It's been years since anyone has asked that question, in the process ignoring building mounds of evidence.
But Bill Heller, an Eclipse Award winning racing writer and author, remained curious. So he talked to dozens of people, looked at nearly 50,000 races, read everything ever written on the subject, went back and talked to a dozen more people and put his findings down on paper.
"There is a lot of momentum toward uniform medication policies in this country, which every other country has had for more than 50 years," he said. "The consensus seems to be that the only medication that should be allowed on race day is Lasix. But before the sport grandfathers it in and allows it, shouldn't we take a closer look at what the realities are?"
Any day now, his book, "Run Baby Run -- What Every Owner, Breeder and Handicapper Should Know About Lasix in Racehorses," will be released. He didn't set out to draw any conclusions, but read this book and one is inescapable: the uncontrolled spread of Lasix was a really bad idea.
After studying 48,000 races, Heller's findings include:
"New York allows five to 10 cc's; Illinois allows three to five cc's; Kentucky has no limit or no minimum on the dosage, not to mention no time table for when it can and cannot be used or any specific route for how it is administered," he said. "The important thing here is that if a horse is shipping from Kentucky to New York, how does a handicapper know how much Lasix they were on and how affective today's dose is going to be?"
"It can diminish bleeding some, but there is a mountain of evidence out there that it doesn't stop bleeding," he said. "The whole rational behind it is that it will heal these horses and they will have longer careers. That's not happening."
Supporting his conclusion that Lasix is not that effective in curbing bleeding, Heller points to the 1990 study commissioned by the Jockey Club. It found that 32 of 52 known bleeders studied still bled while racing with Lasix and that 62 of 235 horses who were not considered bleeders bled when racing with the drug. He also found researchers who had drawn the same conclusions.
"There is good evidence that Lasix doesn't prevent bleeding," Dr. Warrick Bayly, a veterinarian with Washington State University who has conducted his own Lasix studies, told Heller. "But a lot of people give Lasix believing that it does."
"The use of Lasix and bute has been banned in the Hambletonian and the Hambletonian Oaks since 1991 and there have been no lawsuits, no problems," Heller said.
"I'm borrowing this from Stan Bergstein; it's his blue balloon theory," he said. "One day a trainer ties a blue balloon to a horse's tail and it wins. The next day, people figure the blue balloon made a difference, so there are 20 horses running with blue balloons tied to their tails. Here's a drug that doesn't do what it's supposed to do and no one really knows what harm it causes, but everyone uses it. Everyone just wants to feel they're on a level playing field."
But the most damaging evidence against Lasix can be seen every day at a racetrack near you, where five and six-horses fields proliferate the daily programs, which are made up of a bunch of horses who start no more than six or seven times a year.
According to Jockey Club statistics, in 1970, the average number of starts per horse in a year was 10.22 and the average field size in North America was 8.62 horses per race. Over the next 31 years, both numbers have fallen dramatically. In 2001, the average number of starts per horse was down to 6.97 and the average field size was 8.18. Can it be a coincidence that 1970 is right about the time that Lasix first came on the scene? Lasix was supposed to control bleeding and therefore keep horses healthier and in training longer. It's not happening.
"Lasix is bad if it is not used right," Heller said. "Everyone believes it is a perfectly safe medication and is effective in reducing bleeding in some horses. Nobody is saying it's a bad drug and shouldn't be used, but, before it is grandfathered in, someone better have the temerity to say if it is supposed to make horses healthier and run more often then why are horses making fewer starts all the time?"
Lasix isn't going to go away. It's too deeply entrenched. But nobody can say that it's hasn't done some damage to the sport or that it's use makes perfect sense. Not, at least, after reading this book.