L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and actress Bo Derek, the Breeders'… (Valerie Macon / Getty Images )
The Breeders’ Cup comes to Santa Anita this weekend with a controversial mandate to begin eliminating race-day medication in its thoroughbreds at a time when sports organizations worldwide are cracking down on competitors who use performance-enhancing drugs.
Much of the focus is on Lasix, a powerful diuretic that helps prevent bleeding and has been widely used in the U.S. since the 1970s to combat lung hemorrhaging in thoroughbreds. In California, the drug is injected four hours before post time.
But the drug will be banned in horses competing in five Breeders’ Cup races for 2-year-olds on Friday and Saturday. Next year, Lasix will be banned in all 15 Breeders’ Cup races.
“Every other major championship race around the world outside of Canada and the United States is under a race-day medication ban,” said Craig Fravel, president of the Breeders’ Cup.
Lasix is prohibited on race days in Europe, and in the last year various racing groups in the U.S. actively campaigned for its ban.
“Even the horseman who sincerely believes he or she is doing right by the horse by racing on medications should grasp that the public can hardly be expected to distinguish between a syringe that provides the proper therapy and one that introduces chicanery,” the breeding registry group, the Jockey Club, said in 2011.
The Lasix ban will take effect at the sport’s marquee race, the Kentucky Derby, by 2015, if the state Legislature approves a proposal by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. “We cannot succeed as a sport with drugs,” Tracy Farmer, a Kentucky Horse Racing Commission member, said in June.
Lasix, also known as furosemide, is used to treat high blood pressure in humans. The drug is also banned by anti-doping agencies in major and Olympics sports because it can mask other drug use.
At the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, Uzbek artistic gymnast Luiza Galiulina was banned from competition and Moroccan 1,500-meter runner Amine Laalou was stopped from entering England after each submitted tests showing traces of Lasix.
Horsemen treat their thoroughbreds with the drug to avert bleeding in the horses’ lungs during workouts and races, a condition known as exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH).
A 2007 study in South Africa found that Lasix sharply reduced bleeding in racehorses, but it also revealed why some in the industry label it a performance-enhancer. Thoroughbreds treated with Lasix, rather than a placebo, lost an average of 16 pounds of water, according to the study. And that weight loss equated to a 3.5- to five-length advantage in a six-furlong race.
“This is a diuretic, and diuretics can be used to flush the system of steroid metabolites,” said Victor Conte, the notorious founder of the steroid-distributing Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO). “If this is allowed, and we’re talking about horses, this could be way worse than what we’ve seen in cycling.”
Despite the drug’s ban, racing’s major stakeholders are divided about Lasix.
The Thoroughbred Owners of California issued a statement strongly supporting the use of Lasix on the day of a race. “We’re against any sort of performance-enhancing drug,” TOC President Lou Raffetto said. “That’s not Lasix.”
Veterinarian Jeff Blea, a fixture on the Southern California horse racing circuit, also supports using the drug. “Lasix should stay in place and be used. It’s been scientifically proven to be advantageous for treating EIPH,” he said.
Not using it has health consequences, including leaving the animals subject to lung tissue scarring and reduced lung function, he said.
“It’s one of the most divisive issues in horse racing in a long time,” Blea said. “There is a basis for use as a valid medication versus the perception that all drugs should go away and are bad. What’s important to me is the health of the horse, and I think this helps their health in racing.”
This weekend, much attention will be directed at how the 2-year-olds perform without Lasix.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert will be sending out Executiveprivilege, a heavy favorite in the $2-million Juvenile Fillies, for the first time without Lasix.
“Lasix affects you if your horse is a bleeder,” Baffert said. “She’s never bled. If they don’t bleed, you don’t have a problem. For one day, it’s not an issue. Down the road, it is.”
There have been a few defections because of the Lasix ban.
Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer decided not run the 2-year-old filly Scarlet Strike in the Breeders’ Cup. And East Coast-based owner Mike Repole told the Daily Racing Form that the Lasix ban was one of the main reasons he didn’t enter four 2-year-olds.
“The idea all horses have to have Lasix to run is nonsense,” said Rick Arthur, equine director for the California Horse Racing Board. “If the goal is to identify the best horse for the breeding pool for future years, the Breeders’ Cup has a very good argument for the stance it has taken.”