Fair Play - By Evan Hammonds

In this space last week the point was made that it was time for a national set of rules to govern Thoroughbred racing and that the industry should get behind the proposed Horse Racing Integrity Act and follow the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities and The Stronach Group’s lead on banning race day medication.

That stance still stands, but as we all know, the issue is not black and white. While we think we can all agree on most of the points, the elephant in the room remains furosemide, or Lasix, or Salix.

The anti-bleeder medication has been part of the racing game in North America for some time. Sentiment on the anti-bleeding medication runs strong on both sides of the issue.

Some of us can remember the day when New York was the lone holdout on the race-day use of Lasix, but state regulatory officials succumbed in the early fall of 1995 just in time for the Breeders’ Cup that was held at Belmont Park. In 1990 the Breeders’ Cup was run Lasix-free in the Big Apple. In 1995, three of the seven winners of the World Championships program found their way to the winner’s circle having had Lasix administered that day. Ten years later at Belmont Park, seven of the eight winners were treated with Lasix.

An interesting proponent of Lasix—and only Lasix—on race day is Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger, who famously trained Unbridled, a bleeder, to win the Kentucky Derby (G1). The colt subsequently finished fourth in the 1990 Belmont Stakes (G1). However, Unbridled, now a strong source of stamina in North American pedigrees, returned to Belmont later in the year to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) over older horses sans Lasix.

“The medication issue is a deep subject…however, Lasix is the most beneficial thing we can do for a racehorse,” Nafzger said. “If you are pro-Lasix or against it, I’ll ask a simple question: What causes a horse to bleed? The answer is stress. What happens to a horse when it runs in a race; when we ask them to give 110%? Stress. I’ve never had a negative relationship with Lasix.”

How might an experienced horseman go about eliminating stress?

“Find easier competition,” he said matter-of-factly. “It could be the composition of the track; it could be illness, could be dirt in the stall. You have to watch and see all of the things that are going on.

“The way we find a good horse today has changed,” he opined. “Horses today go right from a maiden race to a graded race—that’s crazy—trainers today have a hard time developing a horse. We need to stop and look at what we do.”

In other words, good old-fashioned horsemanship and common sense can go a long way.

How might “common sense” be regulated, be it state-by-state today or nationally? It’s an issue being debated in state legislatures and in the halls of Congress in a myriad of issues and businesses.

“It’s like football,” Nafzger continued. “We’re trying to make football a game where nobody gets injured. It’s not a realistic goal. Athletes get hurt. Horses get hurt, but Lasix isn’t a painkiller—that’s different.”

The debate will continue, and it is important to hear the passion—not just in Nafzger’s voice—on both sides of the issue. The end results should be clear: doing the right thing for the horses while trying to grow the sport.

Nafzger sees the big picture:

“Of the following, which is the easiest to replace: the track owner, the owner, the trainer, or the vet? The answer is the trainer. The owner can always go and find another one to take his horses.

“And who is a ban on race-day Lasix going to hurt? The middle-class owner. If he has a horse that bleeds and can’t run, and that owner is out $50,000, he goes away.”

One of the last things the sport can handle is the disappearance of more owners. While the debate seems to have raged on for years, it’s still early in the process. And we still have so much to learn…from each other.

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