11/08/2012 2:23PM

Simon: Deconstructing the Lasix ban

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It has been estimated that up to 75 percent of racehorses bleed in some manner during competition – yet approximately 95 percent of all U.S. horses perform on the diuretic Salix. The math here clearly doesn’t add up, perhaps belying the oft-defended notion that Salix, also known as Lasix, is a “humane” treatment required to “normalize” performance. Opponents of race-day medication suggest Salix is more of a performance enhancer, used by trainers largely to keep up with their peers.

Drug dependency is a big problem for our sport, one that weakens the breed genetically and turns off fans by the thousands – this according to a recent study underwritten by The Jockey Club. A growing number of prominent breeders have come to agree with this assessment and argue that race-day medication should be eliminated, especially from stakes races. Earlier this month, Breeders’ Cup Ltd., a breeder-driven organization, took the first steps to do just that on its marquee program.

This did not sit well with many horsemen, for whom medication has become central to their training regimes. In fact, the notion that drugs should be banned on race day has sent some of them apoplectic, leading to some hyperbolic, end-of-world predictions. Without drugs, they’ve warned, an unending procession of horses would pull up bleeding in front of grandstands across America, and thus destroy our sport’s otherwise pristine image − or, at the very least, our Thoroughbreds would suddenly become puny, frail, and unable to perform at top levels. Of course, horses racing in Europe have long competed free of race-day medication, a fact largely ignored in North American racing circles. Frankel, anyone?

Breeders’ Cup, to its credit, took the initiative and banned the use of race-day medication in its 2-year-old races this year. This gave both sides of the argument a chance to observe a working test lab at Santa Anita on Nov. 2-3.

While it was a small sample, results suggested that when horses are asked to race sans Salix, the sky would not fall, babies would not be snatched from the arms of their mothers, the world would not spin off its axis – and the homestretch would not be filled with distressed horses pulling up, unable to finish their race, bleeding in front of distressed fans.

Simply put, the absence of race-day medication appeared to have little effect on anything and, more important, may have actually demonstrated that far fewer horses “require” race-day medication than we presently see.

In the five Breeders’ Cup races for juveniles, 38 horses ran without Salix for the first time from 50 total starters. Daily Racing Form has reported that at least three of the 38 bled. There may have been more, but it does not appear to be a large number. If only three bled from that group of off-Salix starters, that would be 8 percent, a far cry from the 75 percent number normally kicked around.

Postrace scoping was not done on every juvenile starter, which might have given us a better handle on the actual instance of tracheal bleeding. Quite possibly more than 8 percent bled at some level or another, though that oft-quoted 3-out-of-4 guesstimate seems unlikely.

Despite 76 percent of juvenile starters racing without Salix for the first time, those five races turned out to be just as formful as the other Breeders’ Cup events: One juvenile favorite won, three favorites ran second, and one ran off the board. In the 10 events for older runners – where Salix was allowed – three favorites won, two were second, two were third, and three finished off the board.

Next year, Breeders’ Cup plans to prohibit race-day medication in all of its races, and it will be interesting to see if the betting public appreciates this, or whether it views the change apprehensively, not knowing how well their selections may run without Salix. This is surely a crossroads for the sport – indicating which direction we may ultimately go in addressing the all-important issue of medication.

While the debate regarding same-day medication will continue, results from a handful of races on America’s championship stage last week showed that the sport can do just fine without it, thank you very much.