04/06/2004 12:00AM

Convenience vs. common sense


TUCSON, Ariz. - They officially buried the Salix-Lasix-furosemide issue last week in New Orleans, but the body will howl from the grave and its ghosts will continue to haunt American racing.

Part science fiction from the start, furosemide will remain a problem, even though the official line now is that everyone can use it, on bleeders and non-bleeders alike, "in the best interests of the horse."

Furosemide was introduced when "bleeders" were horses who bled from the nostrils and came back with their muzzles covered with blood. That condition ended many horses' racing careers, and still will if a horse bleeds visibly four times within a year.

Furosemide, the generic name of a drug also known by the brand names Salix and Lasix, is a powerful diuretic, and horsemen were quick to realize that whatever it did for bleeders, it also could do to mask other substances they might want to administer.

Veterinarians have known all along that furosemide is not a cure. It simply is the best thing they have to use for bleeding. So they used it, and jurisdiction after jurisdiction legalized it, for 2-year-olds and older horses alike.

Along the way the notion arose that all horses bleed internally. One top vet said this week, "it goes with being a horse," but the official word from the Racing and Medication Testing Consortium is that 80 percent or so bleed internally. So if the endoscope now has determined that 80 percent of American horses are bleeders, let our breed of respiratory cripples, and the 20 percent that aren't, all use furosemide.

It was appropriate that this announcement was made at the joint meeting of the Association of Racing Commissioners International and the North American Parimutuel Regulators Association. Although still divided, they all have had furosemide problems, and the new "everybody bleeds" edict allowing universal usage solves those problems. It's a rule of convenience, since the use of furosemide has gone too far to be stopped

Horsemen now can use the stuff voluntarily, as long as they don't use it within four hours of a race and use at least 150 mg but not more than 500 mg, which shall be administered by a single, intravenous injection only, and tested for by urine, serum, or plasma concentrations.

If the racing commissioners heard this with joy, so did the racing lawyers. Specific gravity and plasma thresholds, which are the watchdogs of misuse, will become a courtroom delight, as understaffed commissions and overmatched commission lawyers soon will discover.

But there is another, larger, problem.

The use of furosemide has been accompanied by the nagging doubts of those who think it also is used by the unscrupulous to mask other substances that have nothing to do with bleeding. This view persists, and was expressed as recently as last week in a column in The Blood-Horse by Graeme Beaton, an international business journalist who runs a modest Thoroughbred breeding farm in Pennsylvania. He is not alone in his views.

As long as this belief resides in the minds of people in the industry, including bettors who express the same doubts, it is folly for the ultimate arbiters to ignore it, and say, "Go use it, boys, just don't run your horses hot and cold. Be consistent and uniform, and don't play games with the public." There are rules to enforce this, but any trainer or vet can circumvent them by simply asking to be taken off or put on the furosemide list "for the welfare of the horse."

It is true, of course, that scientists have to make these calls, right or wrong, on what certain substances do to racehorses. Publicists or managers are not qualified.

It may be equally true, however, that scientists are not qualified to handle issues of public opinion, or perception, or why attendance at racetracks has fallen precipitously in recent years.

It would be foolish to claim that furosemide was the major cause, just as foolish as thinking that "Seabiscuit" could revitalize racing. Obviously there are myriad reasons for decline, including competition and computers and simulcasting and rebates and marketing and the whole litany of problems well known and well publicized.

But it also is foolish to think that loosening the reins of rational medication control and saying "giddyap" to questionable practices, however common they have become, does not in the long run damage the image and the welfare of the sport.

It may be convenient, but it also is an invitation to more trouble, of which we have enough.