Drugs, Conditioning, and the American Racehorse

By Earl Ola

Allen Jerkens pointed to a fitter, sturdier animal as another reason why bleeding was considered atypical in the 1950s and 1960s. He said none of his good horses were bleeders.

"Horses worked a lot harder in those days,” Jerkins said. “The strain on them in the race wasn’t as much as the strain is on them now. They trained almost as hard in the morning as they did when they ran.”

The best horses would often work the full distance of an upcoming race five or six days before, breeze a half-mile two days out, and maybe even an eighth of a mile the morning of the race. As but one example, three days before Assault finished off the Triple Crown, Max Hirsch sent the colt out for a 12-furlong breeze in 2:32 at Belmont Park. Allen Jerkins opined, ”If you're not breezing, you're bleeding."

The typical modern drugged, bleeding American Thoroughbred training regime is one breeze at one quarter to one half their race distance every seven days followed by one day of hand-walking followed by five days of slow galloping 1 1/4  to 1 1/2 miles. Contrast this to the average non-bleeding, drug-free foreign racehorse who is breezed two to three times per week. Some foreign trainers employ back-to-back breezes, which means a horse will have four breezes in one week. Their slow work is often open gallops or two-minute lick works. Most drug-free, seldom bleeding foreign racehorses do more race-specific appropriate conditioning in one week than our drugged, bleeding American racehorses do in one month.

In a recent Blood-Horse article Jerkins asked: “How come they (modern American Thoroughbreds) work five furlongs for a five furlong race, five furlongs for a 1 1/8-mile race and 5 furlongs for a 1 1/2-mile race? I don’t understand it.
That’s why a lot of horses don’t finish in their races. The times aren’t any faster than they used to be 30 or 40 years ago. Trotters have gotten way faster over the years while Thoroughbreds haven’t. Kelly Kip ran three quarters in 1:07 and change a couple of times and that was 15 years ago.”

Tom Ivers (author of "The Fit Racehorse") and I pioneered equine exercise performance science. We had 40 donated written-off racehorses to do extensive research on. We were then and may still be the only people doing race-specific scientific conditioning research on real racehorses. We pioneered the use of heart rate meter monitoring in racehorses, set the parameters for their use, pioneered lactic acid analysis, etc. We found that only unfit racehorses bleed and that unfit racehorses breakdown far sooner and in far greater numbers than truly race-fit horses because they do not have the benefit of enough race-specific conditioning that remodels their bodies—developing the necessary bone, tendon, ligament, heart and lung densities or a whole body physical strength to withstand racing pressures.
Studies by Olympic research staff have found the only way to prevent physical problems in human athletes is to provide them with the right training facilities (another area that needs huge improvement in our American Thoroughbred training environment), and they need to be trained in such a way that they are physically able to withstand racing's pressures.

Bone density development and legal drug use in racehorses are areas that need scrutiny through honest, provable scientific research, not the bogus science being used by pro-drug advocates. Oats Hay and Water alliance member and owner of Two Bucks Farm Jim Squires says, “If you examine the science on the side effects of Lasix on human bones, you will see that over a period of time it weakens them considerably by repeatedly interrupting the bone maturation process. This causes a horse to leech replacement calcium out of its bones. With every dose, calcium falls beneath the needed balance with phosphorus and potassium. Vets often attempt to offset this with calcium shots and electrolytes post race. But that is useless. By then the balance has been restored and the horse rids himself of the excess in his urine."

By beginning this harmful process in 18-month-old horses, the bones never get a chance to build density, which I believe to be the main reason they cannot work and race like they once did. If you look at the downward spiral in starts, endurance and breakdowns, you will see it coincides with the introduction and spread of Lasix as a regular element of racing.

Unbiased scientific Lasix research on racehorses done by foreign racing bodies, like those in Australia and Japan whose governments fund research that is not influenced by drug company money, provides the exact same results as those studies done on humans. They have found that Lasix prevents bone density development, and they have scientific proof that Lasix causes internal organs to malfunction over time in racehorses, just as human studies has shown.

Before the legal use of Lasix, American Standardbreds averaged over 100 race starts. Since the Standardbred racing industry has allowed the legal use of Lasix that number has dropped to 67 lifetime race starts. What has prevented average lifetime starts from dropping even further is that the America’s Standardbred training industry has a far more race-specific training system than America’s Thoroughbred training industry, which is why Standardbreds race far longer than Thoroughbred racehorses, and their race times keep getting faster.
Before the legal use of Lasix, American Thoroughbreds raced an average 54.9 times, while today they average less than 17 lifetime starts and that number keeps declining. Most of this decline in lifetime starts is due to the legal use of Lasix, clenbuterol, Bute, etc, and it can be attributed to an inappropriate modern training system—both reasons that Thoroughbred race times have remained stagnant for many years.

For all the time wasted and money spent on the Lasix debate, the truth is our American racehorses keep bleeding far more on Lasix than more appropriately trained drug-free foreign racehorses. Our half-empty racetrack grandstands are living proof that our modern human animal-loving American public is never going to become involved in an animal-based sport were the animals are drugged and whipped.

Every time our animal-loving American public witnesses a half-fit racehorse breakdown on the racetrack, or they read that most of our 3-year-old classic contenders have broken down, it drives more and more people away from our sport. It is a readily observable fact that drug and whip use are keeping our American racetrack stands half empty, while we desperately need to increase our horse racing fan base because gaming revenue will one day evaporate just as it has done in Canada.

Earl Ola is an equine performance and training consultant who also owns a farm near Morriston, Fla.


Leave a Comment:


Sorry sir--my Ivers trained horse bled at Louisiana downs.  A Preston Burch style trained horse became a bleeder and won by 20 lengths on lasix. Otherwise he would have been retired.  While I appreciate and agree with ur stance re unfit race horses, training and bleeding are not necessarily related.  U have to handle and train actual horses for full understanding. U also include in ur post the ridiculous idea that a twice a month lasix shot is harmful to bones, and u see zero difference between foreign horses racing on grass and usa dirt horses.  I'd say ur hands on experience is almost zero.  Sorry to be blunt, but such uninformed opinions are negative to both horses and the sport.

08 Oct 2012 10:10 PM

Well written Earl!!! a great reference article.  What I find astounding is the number of people who are unwilling or unable to see what lasix has done to American thoroughbreds over the last few years.  The sad thing is that so many of these individuals are so paranoid they must be likened to the time in Athletics when the cheaters refused to believe that others could be training and running without steroids, so badly were there peceptions warped.  

09 Oct 2012 5:08 AM
an ole railbird

there is a lot of truth in this articule,but its far from being gospel.

who said "what we have to fear is fear its self".

lasix is over used, i will agree.

but the biggest problem (as mr. jerkins pointed out) is, trainers are afraid to work a horse enough.

this problem is caused by the constant attacks by the bleeding heart fans. who have no hands on experince in the horse industry. but are the 1st to scream "animal abuse" @ the least little irregularity, in a horses training program.

this generation of fans because of their lack of animal experince. have no idea of an animals" pain threshold. whether we like it are not, horses are still animals. they are not humans & do not experince pain on the same levels as do humans.

another downfall to the whole study is. the lack of studys done on range horses, &(or) horses in their natural habitit. this is due to the world shrinking because of population explosion& the shrinking of the sizes of farms & ranches.

the average wieght of a mature race horse (of any breed) has changed very little. (granted there is some difference). but the average of weights of weaning foals & yearlings, have increased by leaps & bounds.

so now we have a foal thats raised in a small acreage,pushed with all of the modern technowledge, to a state of early maturaity.

(model t ford frame & spoke wheels,& t bird engine.)

it is a proven fact that lasix causes some lose of calicum, from the bones, in older humans. but not enough that ,anyone is trying to do away with it.

 there are several contributors to the facts that horses arent what they once were. but lasix is not the main 1.

there is a place in horse training for lasix, just as there is in human medicine.

 the answer lies in the controll of its (lasix ). and its use should not be obilished.

ther is a lot of research left to be down.

the racing fans owe it to the industry to educate them selves to the facts. & not repeat the lies ,1/2 truths, & assumptions of the inexperinced fans, who rail of the abuse of animals.

thank you, amercia, for the right to voice my opinion.

i remain , "an ole railbird".

09 Oct 2012 11:04 AM
Karen in Indiana

Timely article for this year, especially considering how many of the top 3 yr. olds are left in training.

Most of the training done now is actually managing. To pull a horse out for a couple of hours a day, have them standing in a stall for 22+/- hours a day and then expect any results other than breaking or bleeding is insane. Lasix is not the problem, but it is a symptom of the problem. When horses are being managed instead of being trained, what are they being managed for?

09 Oct 2012 12:57 PM

Another pseudo-scientific anti-lasix piece written by one with questionable (at best) academic credentials...It begins by citing Allen Jerkens' observation that "...bleeding was considered atypical in the 1950s and 1960s. He said none of his good horses were bleeders." Well, guess what-the Fiberoptic Endoscope wasn't in use until the 1970s! So, what Mr. Jerkens, or Mr. Ola deemed to be "bleeding" was only frank epistaxis (bleeding from the nostrils). We know better today that the evidence of EIPH is far more widespread, and not confined to those with epistaxis (a most severe form). The fact that Mr. Ola chose this excerpt to begin his piece speaks volumes about his agendas, and his general lack of credibility...Mr. Ola goes on to offer evidence of furosemide's (lasix, salix) harmful effects in the racehorse. Fact is, though, the decline in starts/yr. occurred well before the administration of lasix...Lasix can potentially deplete calcium from bone, but at what level of dosage and duration? I have found no reliable study to support the position that lasix, in the dosage/frequency administered to racehorses, contributes to breakdowns. On the other hand, Hinchcliff's UNBIASED, pristine, and highly-accredited study demonstrated furosemide's beneficial effect on the reduction and prevention of EIPH. I have but one single agenda-the health and well-being of the horse. If lasix can be, or is, harmful, we must weigh the good against the bad. At present we have proof of it's good, but only conjecture re- it's bad. Before we deprive the horse of this good, we must gain more certainty about it's (furosemide's) potential harms.        

09 Oct 2012 1:56 PM
John from Baltimore

The problem also is the huge purses at the top end of the sport. If you are fast enough to make it around first in a million dollar race it dosn't matter how many starts you make.  In the old days a horse had to run a bunch of times to become a millionaire.  Royal Glint became racings 19th millionair and he had to win twenty races to do it.  Now, the stallion register is full of one shot wonders who make less than 15 starts but win one big race. As long as there are people willing to pay big money for this type of stallion's foals and are happy getting ten starts it will continue.  The drugs need to go and the purse structure need to change so horses are rewarded for duribility.  Also, as long as racetrack executives are willin to put up $1,000,000 purse like they did for the Pennslyvnnia Derby, with that no star field it goes on. Money changes everything.

09 Oct 2012 2:30 PM
Miguel Bonifaz

Completely in favor of your article.

It is about time we realize that horse racing is walking to its grave, if we keep race day or practically free pre race medication.

"Dogs barking can only mean we are moving forward".Let´s keep rooting for a clean industry.

09 Oct 2012 6:49 PM
Jim of G

Gheez Earl you'd think that the "modern" race horse was tethered to a lasix IV 247, 365 days a year.  Lasix use is a minor element in racing and can have no physiological influence on horses as fb0252 states above.  I think you and others must be drinking the stuff!  I don't see you really talking about horses but rather some form of politics.  If you don't like lasix or whatever don't use it, but don't tell me how to train...As for the "old timers" ask them what they did do to "help" their horses without modern equine pharmacology, because believe me there wasn't a thoroughbred born that didn't need some "help".

09 Oct 2012 8:01 PM
Mike Relva


You're joking,right? Something sure as heck is contributing to all the breakdowns, the problems why every year so many Derby contenders can't even make it to the starting gate cause of injuries. Guess there's no problem when you bury your head in the sand.

10 Oct 2012 9:33 AM

Mike Relva--i train race horses. How about u?  Yes. something contributes to break downs.  It's called "trainer negligence".  Something we read and study far too little.  Improving of late. Competition will do that.

10 Oct 2012 12:27 PM
Mike Relva

Jim of G

So we don't have any problems in racing? That's great to know. It's ALWAYS easy to look the other way. Please tell me we still have "iron horses" that's able to compete like John Henry, Kelso, etc. We don't!

10 Oct 2012 12:38 PM

Mike Relva:

No, as you already knew, fb0252 wasn't joking. The real "joke" is that those opinionated others, such as yourself, express such certainty despite lacking the required perspective. The % of breakdowns today are no greater than before--even very long before. Yes, something sure as heck is contributing to breakdowns; how about simply reflecting on the inherent injurious nature of the sport--particularly as it's accomplished in US dirt racing/the constraints, etc.--and I'm not so much referring to the drug issue. You want less breakdowns, how about pushing for far greater veterinary oversight of the trainees and runners. And by the way, abolishing lasix would only add to the plight of the racehorse. Take a look at the NYRA stats pre and post the advent of permissible lasix in NY. Note the extremely increased numbers for EIPH-related deaths pre vs post. No, you're not burying your head in the sand, you just haven't read or seen enough.    

10 Oct 2012 6:00 PM
Dr. Don

Having practiced for 33 yrs. on the thoroughbred race tracks in the Chicago area, I find it very interesting that such simplistic reasoning can be applied to the causes of Exercised induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage in the racing Thoroughbred. I actually worked on horses trained by Mr. Ola back in the late 70's and early 80's, and assume that at least some of those horses raced with furosemide.  There is no simple answer to why horses bleed from their lungs. I believe that there are multiple reasons why this occurs. Underlying pulmonary diseas, pulomanry scarring, pleural adhesions, and small airway disease to name a few. Seeing that furosemide is the MOST EFFECTIVE therapy for this condition, I am amazed there are so many "so-called" horsemen calling for it's elimination.If I never see another horse suffer a FATAL episode of E.I.P.H. or another jockey injured or killed in an accident caused by "bleeding" it will be wonderful. As for the issue of soundness in the younger horses, I believe that the "commercial" breeders need to look in the mirror. Over the years they have bred horses that are genetically unsound. Surgery to correct musculskeletal abnormalities in weanlings and yearlings does absolutely nothing to enhance the soundness of the breed. I have seen over the last three decades an unbelievable incereas in the number of horses with abnormal anatomy in their pharyngeal and laryngeal areas. Any abnormality in these areas can only increase the occurence of breathing problems while racing. Very difficult to perform when breathing is an issur. D. Wayne Lucas once stated that the three things he looks for in a stallion is speed, speed,and speed. I believe that we should be looking for anatomical correctness in both the respiratory and musculskelatal systems. Simply because a horse makes alot of money does not qualify that horse to be a sire. We NEED to breed better horses! It is that simple.As for the issue of equine "managers" as opposed to trainers, I must agree with the othe comments pertaining to these conditioners. You surely can not train a horse from some sort of book. Individual care is mandatory. No two horses are alike. Also the fact that todays owners put alot more pressure on their trainers than years past, has a deleterious effect on the most important factor in the racing equation, the HORSE. Remember if we ruin the horse, we all could be un-employed. We must all say Horses first!!

11 Oct 2012 3:09 PM

@an ole railbird: accusing the fans of being "bleeding hearts" and too stupid to "really" understand how race-related medication works has got to be the dumbest thing I've ever read. The fans have nothing to prove to you; YOU have to prove something to the fans, the same way all athletes have to prove to the fans to keep them on board.

I'm trying to understand why constant medication is a Good Thing, or at least Not As Bad As Other Things. A lot of factors are tied into the general weakness of the American racehorse and that includes training regimen, medication, breeding for sales, and the emphasis on two year old/three year old racing. I personally would've made the focus of this article the shift in the way trainers now train their horses instead of the usage and effect of Lasix/Salix but using medication is still a big deal. It's a big deal for us humans so why can't it be a big deal for horses, too?

11 Oct 2012 3:18 PM

In light of the recent revelation that Lance Armstrong did indeed cheat, how naive are we to think the hop trainers in racing aren't running amock with yet-untestable substances, and lasix use helps mask other substances. My God, you can't train/race/breed without the crutches of lasix/race-day bute? Get this sport clean or read its obit in about 20-30 years!

11 Oct 2012 4:52 PM

Mmmm,  and exactly what was your record when you entered the trsining pool a few years back?

11 Oct 2012 8:42 PM


Started racing in 1974 at age 3

Last race was August 15, 1980

Career stats: 114 total starts with 20 wins, 18 seconds, 12 thirds, and total earnings of $85,592

16 Oct 2012 9:31 AM
Mike Relva


No I don't train, nor pretend to.

16 Oct 2012 7:09 PM
Mike Relva


Stand by what I stated, it's as simple as that. If you wanna give your pal carte blanche, be my guest.

16 Oct 2012 7:12 PM

"There are none so blind as those who will not see."  If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, hey, it's a duck!  One does not have to be a vet, a trainer or even associated in any way with the sport of horseracing to understand what Mr. Ola has stated here. The statistics at the Jockey Club don't lie:  the decline in number of starts (annual and lifetime) exactly track with the rise in Lasix use.  For every so-called expert who says Lasix does no harm, there are others who strongly disagree, with both medical and non-medical backgrounds. The momentum is away from raceday meds -- the leaders at the top of the sport, including the Jockey Club, the RCI, the Breeders Cup, and the world-wide racing community all concur. So, it doesn't much matter that the naysayers continue to harp with their pitiful justifications to continue a practice that has so clearly had a deleterious effect on our beautiful equestrian athletes.  Those in authority and at the top of the American sport -- along with the fans and general public -- want these drugs gone....and, this time, they will be successful.  The process isn't pretty, and those on the wrong side of this issue will not go quietly into the good night.  So be it.

23 Nov 2012 12:23 PM

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