While horse racing is making very slow but somewhat steady progress in its fight to rid itself of scourges like steroids and a number of illegal drugs, it shouldn't continue to ignore another drug that has no place in the game. It's time for Lasix to go.
Anyone who still thinks Lasix is necessary would have a hard time explaining the results of the Dubai World Cup Day races. Fifteen U.S.-based horses competed and, of course, all 15 used Lasix when running in North America. The United Arab Emirates, like every other country in the world not named the United States, does not allow horses to compete on that or any other drug. But our drug dependent thoroughbreds did just fine without their fixes.
Including Curlin, who was brilliant when winning the Dubai World Cup, three American horses won on the six-race card. Plus, Idiot Proof was second in the Golden Shaheen and Well Armed was third in the Dubai World Cup. It doesn't seem that any of our horses were put at a disadvantage because they didn't have their supposed anti-bleeding drug. Apparently, neither were any of the 68 non-American horses who ran that day at Nad al Sheba Racecourse.
Not that this was a surprise. Since the inception of the Dubai World Cup in 1996, dozens of U.S. horses have gone to Dubai, run drug free and done just fine.
Back when Lasix was a hot-button issue and was not yet legal in all states, trainers and veterinarians argued vehemently that the drug was necessary to keep their bleeders racing. Without it, they claimed, an abundance of horses would be sidelined, unable to make money for their owners and fill out racing cards. Racing commissions and commissioners bought it. In 1995, the lone holdout, New York, caved in, and Lasix was officially everywhere.
As the years went on, the idea that Lasix was strictly for the horses who needed something to help their bleeding problems became a joke. On any day at any track, virtually every horse racing runs on Lasix. On the same day as the Dubai World Cup, 107 horses raced at Gulfstream and 105 of them ran on Lasix. That includes all 12 starters in the Florida Derby. That these 105 horses all have bleeding problems is laughable.
Now, trainers use Lasix not to control bleeding but to make sure they are on a level playing field with everyone else. Horsemen obviously believe that their horses will run faster with Lasix than without it (which could simply be a case of horses being lighter after they take Lasix because, as a diuretic, it causes horses to lose water weight), and they don't want to be the one guy out there without that edge.
Thirteen years after New York legalized Lasix, we should be seeing the fruits of the medication. With the help of this drug, horses should be running more than ever and lasting longer than ever and 12-horse fields should be the norm.
It turns out that exactly the opposite has happened. In 1970, before Lasix had permeated racing's landscape, the average number of starts per runner per year was 10.22. It's now down to an alarmingly low 6.31. During that same period, the average field size has fallen from 8.62 to 8.17.
It can't be a coincidence that the introduction of Lasix came at precisely the time a trend began whereby horses make fewer and fewer starts each year. It appears that Lasix has done the exact opposite of what its proponents said it would do, which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense. Horses that have to rely on a drug to get through their race day don't figure to last as long as the ones that gets by on mere hay, oats and water.
So, it appears that Lasix doesn't solve bleeding or keep horses in training longer. Then what does it do? According to the World Anti-Doping Agency, it masks other drugs. That's why it is on its list of banned drugs, which means athletes competing in the Olympics are not permitted to use it.
Lasix is a fraud. There is strong evidence that it is detrimental to the long-term well-being of the horse and some of the world's most respected scientists say it can mask other drugs. Its pervasive use adds to racing's image as an outlaw sport where drug use is rampant. Besides Canada, no other country in the world allows it. Yet, its usage here is out of control and no one seems to want to do anything about it. That needs to change.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.