I didn’t have to think twice about an invitation to speak about Lasix at the Drug Testing Standards and Practices Committee of the Association of Racing Commissioners International Tuesday morning in Saratoga Springs. A year earlier, I spoke about Lasix to The Jockey Club in New York City.
Both the ARCI and The Jockey Club had discovered my 2002 book about Lasix, “Run Baby Run,” and wanted to know my perspective several years later.
Here’s my take. The use of Lasix on Thoroughbreds in North America on the day they race was out of control nine years ago. It’s gotten much worse.
This isn’t a complicated issue at all. Lasix, which is effective in stopping extreme bleeding, was supposed to make Thoroughbreds healthier so they could race more often. Instead, since it first began appearing in the backstretches of America in the mid to late ‘60s, it’s done the exact opposite.
The average number of starts per Thoroughbred in 1950 was 10.9. In 1960, it was 11.3. But in 1970, it was 10.2. In 1980, 9.2. In 1990, 7.9. In 2000, 7.1. In 2008, it was 6.2. That’s a decline of nearly 50 percent.
When “Run Baby Run” was published in 2002, from a sample of more than 48,000 Thoroughbreds, 92 percent were using Lasix on race day. Now?
On Saturday, July 9th, all 85 horses racing at Louisiana Downs, used Lasix. At Monmouth Park, 110 of 111. At Hollywood Park, 101 of 102. At Calder, 105 of 107. At Suffolk, 72 of 73. At Finger Lakes, 70 of 71. And at Belmont Park, 99 of 101 horses used Lasix, including all nine first-time starters in a two-year-old maiden race. More recently, In Sunday’s second race at Saratoga Race Course, seven of eight first-timers were on Lasix.
How did 16 of 17 unraced two-year-olds qualify for race-day Lasix? Did they bleed in their workouts? Was it documented?
In harness racing, on July 16th at The Meadowlands, 30 two-year-old pacers competed in three divisions of the rich New Jersey Sire Stakes, and none of them used Lasix. That same night, only two of 15 three-year-old trotters competing in two divisions of the Stanley Dancer Stakes were on Lasix. And only one of 10 three-year-old pacers in the $1 million Meadowlands Pace used it.
We know there’s a difference between Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds, but there’s also a difference between Thoroughbreds racing in North America and Thoroughbreds racing everywhere else in the world, where there is no race-day medication of any kind allowed.
You’d have to be blind to not see that in addition to racing less frequently, today’s Thoroughbreds struggle to make longer distances and are unable to carry significant weight in the few remaining major handicaps.
In 1991, the Hambletonian Society took a bold step, not allowing Lasix for its two marquee races, the Hambletonian and the Hambletonian Oaks. There was no outcry from horsemen and those two races have been Lasix-free for 20 years and counting.
Ed Martin, President and CEO of the ARCI, brought the issue of re-examining race-day Lasix to light several months ago, and, surprisingly, many other racing bodies jumped aboard, most recently the Breeders’ Cup.
Horsemen around the country have expressed their concern about eliminating race-day Lasix, but that doesn’t prevent many of them from shipping their horses halfway around the world to run in rich stakes races in Dubai, which doesn’t allow any medication on race-day.
Others with vested interests have twisted this issue by suggesting that people are calling for eliminating Lasix completely. Nobody has suggested that. Those with grave concerns for the well-being of North American Thoroughbreds want to eliminate Lasix on race-day.
New York was the last racing state to allow Lasix in 1995. About two years later, I did a story for Backstretch Magazine on trainer Elliott Burch, a third-generation Hall of Famer. When I asked him what he was most proud of in his distinguished career, he replied immediately, “Racing my horses on hay, oats and water.”
Hall of Fame jockey Jose Santos will join Bill for a book signing of "Above It All; The Turbulent Life of Jose Santos" at the Parting Glass in Saratoga Springs Thursday night at 7 p.m. Visit www.billhellerbooks.com to purchase Bill's latest books.