US ponders Lasix ban

The debate over the use of the diuretic drug Lasix in American racing is hotting up. At the Breeders’ Cup later this year the drug will be banned for the juvenile races and for all the championship races from 2013.

The decision has met with opposition from several trainers, with Bob Baffert voicing his concerns in very strong terms. He claimed, “If they take race day Lasix away I will recommend to all my clients to sell their broodmares asap. Racing will not survive.”

The argument for the use of Lasix, which is the most common brand name for the drug furosomide, is that it reduces the incidence of horses bleeding from the nose when they race. In America if a horse bleeds three times it is banned from racing altogether. Between the mid 1970s and 1995 American states legalised the use of furosomide, in some places for all horses and in some states just for known bleeders.

Now there are growing concerns about the impact the use of Lasix on racehorses is having on the American bloodstock industry. There is a growing feeling amongst overseas breeders that it is concealing weaknesses in the constitution of stallions and mares.

Former trainer, now a major owner of horses, Bill Casner, is setting out to change that view. Some years ago he ran an experiment on some of his horses to test how Lasix affected them. He had them weighed after races, and found that those running after being injected with the drug lost up to 100lb after racing. More significantly it took them longer to recover, anything up to five weeks compared with two for those running untreated.

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Then, he says, “In 2009 we took Well Armed to the Dubai World Cup and he won by 14 lengths without Lasix and I thought ‘what if I’d run him on Lasix, would he have run to that level.’ I reflected on the races he’d run in the US, where he’d get to the front and then get nailed on the wire, and I asked myself, ‘how many times are we stopping horses by giving them Lasix, especially in hot weather?’ Dehydration is so detrimental to racehorses.”

Casner started to run all the horses he has with Eion Harty without the drug and found that they didn’t suffer bleeding. Neither did they stop winning races. Indeed, those horses have won six of their fourteen starts since he made the change. He says, “I believe I have given myself a competitive advantage by not running on Lasix. For one thing I don’t have to worry about the side effects suffered by the horse. You’re subjecting the horse to a severe athletic situation and then to inject it with a diuretic drug such as Lasix suddenly makes it even more demanding.”

Now several other leading owners are taking note, and have decided not to use the drug on their two-year-old horses. They’ll introduce this approach from next month’s Saratoga meeting in New York, which marks the start of the major juvenile races.

He’d clearly like to take others to follow suit, but he says there’s reluctance to do so, borne of habit and practice. He says, "The problem with American racing is that a whole generation of owners and trainers have bought into the myth that ‘these horses cannot run without Lasix.’ Change is difficult and it’s going to be a slow process. Today’s trainers don’t have reference from experience and the opposition is based on fear.”

In the end, any change may have to be driven by the authorities. It took 20 years before all the different state bodies approved the use of the drug. It could well take as long for them all to ban it.

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