Sea Change - By Eric Mitchell

A stance by 25 prominent American trainers Aug. 1 urging the elimination of race-day Salix over the next two years has not done much to clarify the debate over the medication’s use (see page 15), but it has given new momentum to putting America on par with the rest of the racing world.

The intention of the phase-out, some of the supporting trainers said this week, is twofold: 1) get a conversation started on how the U.S. can square its racing policy with other major racing jurisdictions around the world, and 2) address an issue that continues to tarnish the reputation of horse racing as a sport.

“We’ve been in a negative cycle for a while, with a lot of the major indicators being down,” said leading trainer Todd Pletcher, who a couple of years ago described himself as “pro Lasix” and disagreed with a Breeders’ Cup decision to ban Salix use in the World Championships’ races for juveniles. “We need something to change it up, and this is one way I think may make a difference. The rest of the world has been managing without it.”

Pletcher is not alone in having done a lot of soul-searching on the race-day medication issue. Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott said he had been “in the middle” on the issue but now, having weighed the pros and cons, believes American trainers can be successful and racing’s image will be significantly improved without it.

“I think Lasix is overrated as is the importance that some people attribute to it,” Mott said. “It helps some horses. Are there horses that bleed through it? All the time. There will be some adjustment, but everyone will get along just fine.”

New York trainer Rick Violette Jr., president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, doesn’t agree and is among several trainers who have taken a steadfast position that Salix is essential to protect the health of the horses because research shows the medication is effective in reducing exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage.

“Lasix is the only scientifically proven, truly effective treatment we have to protect them,” Violette said in a statement last week. “A Lasix ban does not benefit the horse, the owner, or the horseplayer.”

Many of the most vocal participants in the Salix debate like to paint the issue as black or white, but it is one that is assuredly surrounded in a cloud of gray. Even some of the trainers who favor phasing out its use on race day still have questions and concerns. Phasing out the use of Salix in juveniles has not raised as many questions as eliminating its use in older horses, which race more frequently. Many trainers will cite specific cases of horses they believe simply would not be able to race if Salix were not available.

Trainer Wesley Ward, who has won graded stakes in the U.S. with horses on Salix and won group races at Ascot in England without it, said a homebred he raced named Easy Ashley absolutely needed Salix.

“Whenever I gave her 5 ccs (of Salix), she was clean and went on to earn almost $250,000,” Ward said. “Without it, she probably wouldn’t have earned $2,000.” Just giving the filly time off from training would not have helped. She probably would not have been able to race at all, he said.

Then there is Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains for Darley and Shadwell, and has been racing their horses for several years without Salix. He said in the first two years he took the horses off the medication on race day, he only saw two horses out of 50 bleed significantly.

“This is a big step, and it is a tricky situation,” McLaughlin said. “But it is definitely doable and definitely manageable if we have enough support to do it.”

Everyone has a story to support his or her position, but one of the most compelling arguments to pursue the phase-out is that racing without Salix on race day is not breaking new ground. It used to be done here and is the standard practice elsewhere.

“Even in Europe they use Lasix in the morning,” said trainer Graham Motion. “The issue is about race-day medication. I don’t quite get the panic.”

Because owners frequently defer to their trainers on issues such as medication use, the position taken by these leading trainers is significant in promoting a more thoughtful and conservative approach toward medication use. It is a stance that should be applauded and one that moves the industry in the right direction.


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Old Old Cat

I am puzzled.  Graham Motion, a former Englishman, and one of the most highly respected trainers in America, is saying that in Europe they use Lasix in the morning while training, but not on raceday.   Is Lasix good for horses or bad for horses.  If it is good for horses, then allow it everywhere.  If it is bad for horses, then ban it everywhere.  Don't ban it only on raceday then come across with an "holier than thou" attitude, "We don't use that vile substance".  

I realize American racing and European racing are different in substance and style; hard pounding dirt vs soft yielding grass, speed vs distance.  But I wonder if American trainers refrain from Lasix in training because they save the horse for the race, while Europeans maybe are stressing their horses during training (with added wind from Lasix) to make the actual  races seem easier?

05 Aug 2014 4:47 PM

Well, Mr. Mitchell, after all this time, and all your articles on this subject, you finally gave away-in your last paragraph- the position you have held all along...Just look at the disparity of thoughts held by these trainers. Many have differing agendas, and none are Vets or scientists. Ignore them, and be guided by what science offers. To do otherwise is simply reckless.

05 Aug 2014 6:22 PM

I would love to take my horses off Lasix; however, if I do I can't put them back on for 90 days.  So, if the experiment fails and they truly need it, I can't race my horses for three months.  If the industry wants to phase out Lasix, perhaps the industry should make it easier and less risky for owners like me to try taking their horses off Lasix.

05 Aug 2014 9:53 PM
Pedigree Ann

I blame the availability of bronchoscopes for the 'craze' for Lasix. Once upon a time, the only horses who 'bled' were those who did so from the nostrils, visibly on the outside. But once everybody had 'scopes, they could look inside - Gasp! He has a few flecks of blood in his trachea or bronchial tubes! He's a bleeder! Run him on Lasix! Newsflash - some horses probably ALWAYS had a few flecks of blood in their lungs after races, just like many human athletes do. It is not a pathology that requires mediation, merely the result of strenuous exercise and causes no long-term damage. True bleeding, on the other hand, is a horrendous event for the horse and requires many months of recovery time while the lung tissue repairs itself. In Australia, six months off is required before a bleeder can return to the track; if he bleeds again, he is banned from racing. This is not to punish the owner but to protect the horse from further harm. A horse who bleeds while racing can still have a useful career at lower speeds, as a hack or a hunter or a school horse.

Vets have to stand up and say, no, this horse hasn't bled therefore I will not treat him for bleeding. Since many horses 'bleed through the Lasix' it doesn't seem to be that great a preventative, either. It isn't required for most horses and has side-effects that can harm them (serious fluid loss).., why is it standard practice, Mr./Ms. Vet?

P. S. Bute is an NSAID and when you take NSAIDs you warned not to take anticoagulants because the NSAIDs are already a blood-thinner. Is it possible that the so-called 'explosion' of bleeding which occurred after some few years of legalized Bute was a result of excess Bute use?

06 Aug 2014 3:39 AM
Barry Irwin

This is huge and I applaud the 25 trainers for taking this stance.

06 Aug 2014 9:31 AM
Bill Rinker

Highly contentious subject with viable credence on both sides of the fence. Whatever the out come, there will be many questions to debate, and many theories' to prove and dispute for sometime. Unfortunately, this subject matter seems somewhat taboo, with an opportunity for initiative somehow standing idle, but plainly before us. It seems obvious that there's more than meets the eye here, and understanding the demographics on why it is so popular may be the first place to begin work. For now, one cost affective analyses would be to start writing Lasix restricted races on each card.  Maybe something like one that is Lasix free, one that is first time Lasix only and one that is only for documented bleeders at a predetermined level. If they would fill, (and with persistence perhaps they would) there is little doubt that it would give us some very valuable information for the future? Thanks for the update Eric.

06 Aug 2014 10:29 AM

A recent study says careers are not shortened if a horse bleeds below "do not race" levels:  7-29-14 - Study author Stephanie Preston, of the Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center's Equine Soundness and Sports Medicine Program at the University of Kentucky, said her study indicates low level EIPH is common but does not impact performance or the horse's ability to stay in training.

I don't think we would be having this discussion if since Lasix was introduced and accepted by all U.S. racing jurisdictions that those responsible for the health and welfare of the horses would have adopted a policy of using furosemide on only horses that showed some bleeding through the nose. What happened along the way is everyone (trainers mostly) figured out that the big weight loss gave the horse an advantage (like having the favorite in a race give a less accomplished horse 15 or 20 pounds in a handicap race!).  No one wanted to be on a one-down position against another horse that was racing with Lasix, so they came up with the endoscope to pick up even the smallest amounts of blood to justify the use of the DRUG on ALL HORSES IN RACING.  That is just insane, and everybody knows it! A drug with the huge amount of side effects as does Lasix should never have been approved to be used on ALL  horses.  The definition of a bleeder overseas has not changed (at least in most racing jurisdictions): a horse that bleeds through the nose. In a presentation in Saratoga preceding the Jockey Club Round Table a couple years ago, a noted veterinarian estimated that if Lasix were to be eliminated, it is likely that 0.2% of North American racehorses would be excluded from racing due to bleeding.  I have no idea how many horses are in training in the U.S., but for argument's sake, let's just say 25,000.  .2% amounts to 50 horses!  Do we really need to treat all horses to help the few who could not race without it?  

08 Aug 2014 12:23 PM

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