10/18/2012 12:42PM

Breeders' Cup: Lasix ban puts trainers in uncharted territory

Barbara D. Livingston
Fortify, winning his maiden in August, has raced without Lasix in all three of his races. He is trained by Kiaran McLaughlin.

The “L” that appears in horses’ past performances, signifying that a horse raced on the anti-bleeder medication Lasix, has become so ubiquitous that horseplayers tend to assume its presence.

What will strike anyone perusing the past-performance lines for 2-year-old races in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup is the absence of the “L.”

Following through on a plan hatched in July 2011, the Breeders’ Cup won’t allow any horse in the five 2-year-old Breeders’ Cup events this year to start with Lasix, a ban the Breeders’ Cup intends to expand through all 15 races in 2013. The BC juvenile races will shine bright light on the ability of elite North American 2-year-olds to race Lasix-free. Only one such horse considered an upper-tier contender in the five races, Fortify, has been racing without Lasix throughout 2012. All the other horses of established significance start without Lasix for the first time.

“I was just over at the Arc de Triomphe, and every single race all day long was run without Lasix,” said Craig Fravel, the Breeders’ Cup CEO. “I’m looking forward to seeing how it works.”

The Breeders’ Cup Lasix ban provides a culminating trial in a quietly grand experiment that began this summer, when a group of 40 prominent owners pledged to race 2-year-olds without Lasix or any other anti-bleeder medication. The pact comes at a time when the broad, general use of medications in North American horses has come under intense scrutiny. A vocal faction of the racing community believes that medication should be de-emphasized for the general good of the sport, a perspective that has been challenged by horsemen’s groups and, in some cases, individual trainers.

Over the summer, Lasix-free racers abounded at Saratoga but were rare in Southern California, where the Breeders’ Cup will be staged Nov. 2-3 at Santa Anita.

At Saratoga, the biggest East Coast summer meeting for 2-year-olds, 137 of 694 starters (19.7 percent) in 90 juvenile races raced without Lasix. The Lasix-free horses won only half as frequently as Lasix users (see chart on page 5), but other factors drove the disparity in win rate. Principally, trainer Todd Pletcher, the strongest 2-year-old trainer in New York, sent all his winners out with Lasix.

At Del Mar, California’s equivalent to Saratoga in terms of 2-year-old importance, the number of Lasix-free runners was negligible. In 66 2-year-old races there, only 15 of 563 starters (2.7 percent) raced without Lasix, and none of those horses finished first or second.

During the first two weeks of the current Keeneland meet, another showcase for 2-year-olds, only 36 of 222 (16.2 percent) starters raced without Lasix, with only one winner from 21 races. Eleven of those runners, however, finished second, third, or fourth, suggesting the low win mark didn’t offer a true performance measure.

“The whole thing was a little bit surprising, and I can’t say this is a crazy idea,” said Bill Mott, who ran 2-year-olds with and without Lasix, depending on ownership, at the Saratoga and Keeneland meets. “It has not been a bad experience to this point.”

No one is shouting that the sky is going to fall when Breeders’ Cup races are conducted Lasix-free, and until prominent owner Mike Repole withdrew his 2-year-olds from Breeders’ Cup consideration Wednesday, there had been no notable defections overtly stemming from the Lasix ban. Still, strong countervailing forces remain.

Bob Baffert is the top 2-year-old trainer on the West Coast – he trains BC Juvenile Filly’s favorite Executiveprivilege – and has yet to start a juvenile without Lasix in 2012. In New York, Pletcher – who has Juvenile favorite Shanghai Bobby and a leading contender for the Juvenile Fillies, Dreaming of Julia – ran only one of his legions of Saratoga 2-year-olds without Lasix. That horse, M Six, is owned by Lawrence Goichman, one of the no-Lasix-pledge owners.

“There are some very pro-Lasix people, and there are some people who think it’s the devil,” Pletcher said. “It will be a concern for me, and I hope that the horses perform as well as they can. It’s an experiment because both those horses have been running on Lasix, but I believe most participants will be in the same boat.”

Indeed, the boat is vast. About 95 percent of American Thoroughbreds race on Lasix, which has been legal in every state since 1995 and was first approved for race-day use in the mid-1970s. North America is the only major racing jurisdiction in the world that permits raceday Lasix, which has proliferated as a reasonably safe, relatively effective way of controlling exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage.

Commonly referred to as bleeding, EIPH is the stress-induced bursting of tiny capillaries in a horse’s lungs. Blood can get into a horse’s airway, impairing breathing and performance, and in the most serious cases will gush from the nostrils. Lasix – the trade name for furosemide, which is also marketed as Salix – is a diuretic, drying out and decreasing pressure on those susceptible capillaries. It also leads to frequent urination: A horse can lose about 15 pounds after a shot. A lighter horse, theoretically, can run faster, thus the identification in many quarters of Lasix as a performance-enhancer.

Not all of the 95 percent of horses racing on Lasix are bleeders, but many horsemen say Lasix has value in preventing an initial bleeding episode.

“It’s more preventive than anything, because once they bleed, you start to have problems,” Baffert said.

Pletcher trains more 2-year-olds than anyone, and all of them are examined with an endoscope that can reveal EIPH after every workout and race.

“From my experience, at some point almost all horses show at least some blood on a scope,” Pletcher said, estimating the number to be around 90 percent. “I would say that I’ve gathered enough data through our veterinarians and our scope results to have seen as much of that as anyone.”

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Proponents of the ban believe Lasix regularly is administered to young horses as a matter of course, not because it’s necessary, contributing to a generally overmedicated racing population in North America. Horses who go on to a successful career with help from Lasix aren’t viewed as skeptically in North America as in other parts of the world, where attempts are made to keep them out of the equine gene pool. Here, bleeders have been bred to bleeders for generations, reinforcing, many believe, the incidence of bleeding in racehorses. And finally, many Lasix-ban advocates believe horses start less frequently because recovering from a race is more difficult if Lasix has been administered, mainly because of the dehydration that results.

“If you look at the numbers, about the time Lasix became prevalent everywhere – somewhere in the early 90s – look at the starts per horse and starts per year,” said Seth Hancock, whose family owns storied Claiborne Farm, a signatory to the no-2-year-old-Lasix pledge. “If you charted it on a graph, you’d see a big drop off.”

Bill Casner, the former co-owner of WinStar Farm, was an organizing force in the Lasix-free 2-year-old pledge. Casner, once a trainer, is a strong advocate for a return to the pre-Lasix era, and the trainer he employs, Eoin Harty, has the second-highest number of Lasix-free 2-year-old starters this year.

“We have a whole generation of trainers, a whole generation of owners, that don’t have that reference point,” Casner said. “I have the luxury of having run horses in an earlier time. And as far as I’m concerned, racing without Lasix is in the best interest of my horses. I think they’re healthier horses.”

Casner’s small racing stable has been racing without Lasix since January 2011, he said. His best horse, Endorsement, won the Grade 3 Texas Mile this year racing without Lasix or phenylbutazone, the routinely used anti-inflammatory medication known as Bute.

“The numbers that are represented out there of the horses that bleed, we’re not finding that in our small population,” Casner said. “We’ve had no problems with taking horses off Lasix.”

In New York, where the no-Lasix pledge is rooted, almost all the untreated horses appeared to hold up through the rigors of racing and training.

“There were a couple we were a bit concerned about initially, but oddly enough, everybody has seemed to come out of it pretty clean,” Mott said. “Maybe we had one that showed one little sign of bleeding, but most of them scoped very well afterward.”

Kiaran McLaughlin trains for Godolphin, one of the biggest no-Lasix signatories and the owner of Fortify, the most successful Lasix-free 2-year-old of the summer. Fortify won his debut at Saratoga by five lengths, then finished second in the Grade 2 Hopeful and third in the Grade 1 Champagne, races won by Shanghai Bobby.

“Fortify hasn’t bled at all,” McLaughlin said. “Of all the horses that’ve run, we’ve had just one bleed. We stopped on him, but the rest of them were training on. We haven’t had great results with first-timers without Lasix, but that’s not because of Lasix; it’s my way of doing things.”

McLaughlin, like Pletcher, scopes all his horses after every workout. That includes unraced 2-year-olds who were candidates to race Lasix-free, and McLaughlin said none of those horses showed signs of bleeding that might have spurred him to suggest to an owner that racing without Lasix would be imprudent.

“We’ve been very lucky,” he said. “It’s kind of surprised me, been an eye-opener, and it’s a positive.

“I’m OK with it because I raced 10 years without Lasix in Dubai, and I actually was in New York as an assistant before Lasix was legal. I’m 51 years old. I know that it’s okay and it can be done. A lot of younger trainers might not be as comfortable.”

Trainer Christophe Clement said he didn’t use Lasix on any of his first-time-starting 2-year-olds in 2011. This year, with owners signing on to the pledge, more of his juveniles continued racing Lasix-free: Six such horses have won.

“You can win without Lasix,” said Clement, who also didn’t rule out putting some of his 2-year-olds on Lasix as they mature. “I think that bleeding among 2-year-olds exists, but it’s a very small number.”

Hancock, of Claiborne, also expressed satisfaction with the results of the no-Lasix experiment.

“We haven’t seen a negative effect on performance,” he said. “The horses have come back fine – we’ve been able to run back as quick as we want to. Now we’re going to see how our horses are going to hold up. We’re hoping we’ll still have some hard-nosed horses at 4 and 5.”

Horsemen with Breeders’ Cup juvenile runners – and, of course, the Breeders’ Cup itself – are hoping the 2-year-olds of this season are hard-nosed enough to withstand a Lasix-free start on a big stage. The Saratoga experience unfolded scattershot. At the Breeders’ Cup, no-Lasix is happening en masse, and no one can really know what to expect.

“I worry about it for everyone’s perspective: From the owner’s perspective − not being able to protect their investment − from a trainer’s perspective, and I think it’s detrimental to the bettor, who can have more confidence that the horse they’re wagering on is going to perform,” Pletcher said.

Baffert said he’s not especially concerned about racing Lasix-free because his top 2-year-olds don’t appear to be bleeders.

“I’m not real worried about my horses, because they’ve never shown any signs of it, and we give very low doses of Lasix,” Baffert said. “But on race day you never know. We won’t know until they race.”

McLaughlin is the one North American trainer who goes into the Breeders’ Cup unconcerned about the withdrawal of Lasix, but that doesn’t mean he’s touting Fortify, who was beaten six lengths by Shanghai Bobby in the Champagne.

“You never know. Shanghai Bobby might not have needed Lasix either,” McLaughlin said. “It makes it easier for me because it’s not a change of equipment, but I’m not confident we’re going to reverse the form on him. He might run the race of his life without it. It might be an advantage – you just don’t know.”

When the Breeders’ Cup first announced its no-Lasix 2-year-old plan, a movement to push Lasix from American racing had wind in its sails, but 2012 has seen slackening. A proposal to deny graded status to 2012 2-year-old stakes in which horses raced with Lasix was scrapped. Kentucky regulators declined to outlaw Lasix after coming to the brink of such a decision. In August, 24 state affiliates of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association passed a formal resolution calling for the continued raceday use of Lasix. At the moment, the Breeders’ Cup stands alone in terms of formal action taken to reduce Lasix use.

“My own view is that the Breeders’ Cup was not acting in anticipation of other organizations or entities taking particular positions,” said Fravel, the Breeders’ Cup CEO. “It was really focused on the fact these are championships, this is an international event, and that there was a desire we run our races under conditions similar to the rest of the world. We weren’t sitting there thinking the graded stakes committee is going to do this, the national HBPA is going to do that.”

Fravel said the Breeders’ Cup Lasix policy will, like all aspects of the event, be evaluated after this year’s races, but the organization at this point still intends to conduct the 2013 Breeders’ Cup totally Lasix free. And while the 2-year-old ban this year has precipitated only muted outcry, one can easily imagine a more toxic environment pervading the 2013 run-up to the Cup. That’s one reason 2-year-old performance on the 2nd and 3rd of November at Santa Anita will be so closely scrutinized. But leave it to Clement, a Frenchman who first learned his trade far from the American Lasix epicenter, to urge prudence.

“I think people are getting way too emotional about this,” Clement said. “When you speak to people and read things across the country, they’re either too much for it or against it. Some people say racing will cease, others say horses are going to be killed. It’s too much in both directions.
“We can talk about it the day after the race, but I can guarantee you right now,” he said. “The better horse will win in the Breeders’ Cup.” 


Breeders' Cup 2-year-old contenders

The top 10 prospective starters in the five Breeders' Cup juvenile races. (Bold indicates horses who have never raced on Lasix; all others have raced with Lasix in all or some starts.)

Shanghai Bobby Executiveprivilege Artigiano* Sky Lantern* Beholder
Power Broker Dreaming of Julia Noble Tune Watsdachances Kauai Katie
Title Contender Beholder Balance the Books Spring Venture Merit Man
Know More Spring in the Air Joha Waterway Run Darwin
Overanalyze Kauai Katie Gervinho Sustained Carried Interest
John Scarlet Strike Pearl Flute* Manuka Honey Bern Identity
Cape Bastone My Happy Face Dry Summer Tara from the Cape Super Ninety Nine
Fortify Broken Spell Dens Legacy Always Kitten Handsome Jack
Dynamic Sky Sweet Shirley Mae Brown Almighty Hedonemewrongsong South Floyd
Itsmyluckyday Miss Empire I'm Boundtoscore Oscar Party Gulfport

*European horse

With or without Lasix

Lasix-free 2-year-old runners abounded at Saratoga and Keeneland this year but were rare at Del Mar.

Total 2yo races 66 90 21
Total 2yo runners 563 694 222
No-Lasix 2yo runners 15 (2.7%) 137 (19.7%) 36 (16.2%)
Record of no-Lasix 2yo's 0-0-3-4 10-13-13-19 1-5-3-3

 *Through two weeks