06/24/2011 3:24PM

Outlawing Lasix won't stop the bleeding

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Reasonable people can disagree about whether the raceday administration of Lasix should be continued, modified or phased out in American racing, but two aspects of the current debate about it simply don’t pass the smell test.

The first is the proposition that Lasix is a major issue in the declining popularity of the sport and a significant factor in the industry’s current business woes. The oft-repeated narrative is that lifelong horseplayers are suddenly so troubled by Lasix, decades after its introduction, that they are deserting the game, and that newcomers who would otherwise be filling the grandstands are staying home because they are so repelled by it.

No sale. Of course if you poll civilians about whether racing (or water polo, or your local crafts fair) would be better off without “performance-enhancing” drugs, they will answer in the affirmative. From personal experience, however, I see no evidence that this translates to Lasix keeping anyone away from racing. Over the last decade, I have conducted over 100 question-and-answer seminars with tens of thousands of fans and players at tracks and betting parlors across the country. The next one I meet who thinks Lasix is a major issue, or a reason not to play the races, will be the first. Customers are not shy about voicing numerous complaints about the game, but in my experience Lasix is not even on their radar.

They care about illegal drugs and whether the game is on the level, but this has no connection whatsoever to raceday Lasix shots, at least until the general news media swoops in and muddles these entirely separate matters. The dispensation of Lasix is one of the very few things in racing that seems to work pretty well and without controversy or suggestions of impropriety. The public is reliably informed which horses (i.e., just about all of them) are getting it, and which ones are getting it for the first time. There are plenty of things that horseplayers are justifiably disgruntled about – high takeout, unappealing races, poor technology, subpar facilities – but raceday Lasix never turns up on the long list of customer complaints.

The whole issue of whether Lasix can mask other drugs was a valid concern a generation ago – perhaps the best reason to oppose its use – but from all veterinary accounts this is now a non-issue. The vastly increased precision of testing, and a greater reliance on plasma rather than urine tests, has made this a moot point.

There are other reasons to be skeptical about whether it has been a beneficial addition to the sport, such as its possible long-term effect on breeding stock and whether the United States should be so out of sync with other major racing jurisdictions. Customer acquisition and retention, however, are not among them.

The other part of the debate that rings hollow is the disconnect between the words and deeds of some of the most forceful opponents of Lasix – a group of high-minded owners and breeders who say it is detrimental to racing and horses and that the feds must be called in to stop it. The problem is that every one of them continues to give Lasix to their own horses, saying it is unreasonable for them to fight the battles of the turf with one hand tied behind their backs. They say they will continue to give all of their own horses Lasix until the day it is banned because they don’t want to give up a competitive advantage.

If this issue ever makes it to the level of Congressional inquiry, racing will be laughed out of the hearing rooms. Those who race their horses on Lasix while decrying its use will unfairly but understandably be perceived as hypocrites whose sense of morality and animal welfare ends the moment it interferes with their personal pursuit of trophies and purses. Those who opine that Lasix is terrible for racing and its horses would have a lot more credibility if they stopped using it tomorrow instead of advocating positions they refuse to adopt for their own horses.

It also would be a lot easier to accept the supposed scorn of the international racing community if a single one of the powerful international stables that sends horses to the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup declined to use Lasix as a matter of principle once they get here. Instead, virtually all of them use it while continuing to criticize American racing for allowing them to do so.

If you think racing has an image problem now, just wait until these advocates go to Capitol Hill and tell legislators that Lasix must be banned to save racing and that there are better ways to treat pulmonary bleeding – but that they refuse to ban it within their own stables or even try to embrace any of these supposedly superior treatments.