Use Of Drugs In American Racing

By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)

As an English racing fan, looking at the way racing works in America fascinates me and yet it also confuses me. One of the main differences about British and American racing is that there are thirty eight individual agencies controlling the racing in America. Also, the horses are permitted to run under the influence of drugs.

The rest of the world runs drug-free on race day and there is no solid evidence that North American horses can’t either. But they do.

The most well-known drug is furosemide or Lasix as it is commonly known. Lasix is primarily used to treat exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhages, which occurs when horses bleed from the lungs when running. Severe bleeding in racehorses is uncommon but most horses do experience some levels of bleeding in the lungs which can be uncomfortable for them and a hindrance to their performance. It does this by reducing the blood pressure in the lungs. A review by scientists in the Journal Of Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics stated that reducing the blood pressure in the lungs by Lasix is not sufficient in magnitude to prevent bleeds.

A study by researchers at the University Of Pennsylvania states that ‘Using a visual endoscopic scoring system, numerous studies have shown either a slight or no reduction in EIPH [pulmonary haemorrhages] in horses administered Lasix before racing’. This basically means it makes very little difference.

Veteran horseman Mike Keogh believes that ruling out Lasix is unrealistic, “We’ve bred all these stallions, that were retired early, that were bleeders and now it’s in the blood,” he said. “I can’t see how they can get away without Lasix. Lasix doesn’t make them run faster. It’s humane. It stops them from bleeding. Believe me, it’s in their blood now.” Keogh, an Epsom native, continued. “In Germany, all of the stallions that the breed to cannot have run on Lasix [Germany is drug-free] and that’s why they have a strong breed.”

Keogh is suggesting that the North American thoroughbred have in some ways evolved to need to use Lasix over the past forty years since the 1970s when administering ‘permissive medications’ on race days was made ‘standard’. Lots of people believe the chronic used of this medication have led to the mounting frailty of American thoroughbreds. Some studies of the use of Lasix and other related blood pressure reducing medications in humans and horses showed a decrease in bone density and calcium, sometimes to triple the amount without using it in adult males.

There are other typically used drugs which then contribute to this – flunixin, better known as bute, is used to treat pain, reduce fever or inflammation and treat Arthritis in all types of horses and ketoprofer to reduce inflammation and pain in association with musculoskeletal disorders. These two things are cloaking devices in a way. They are painkillers which stop the horse from feeling the pain of their injury so as a result are able to run. This could lead to further injuries / worsening injuries to beyond repair.

From December to roughly March, twenty three horses died at Santa Anita racetrack alone. That’s a horrific number in such a small amount of time. Could the use of these three legal medications be the reason for this drastical increase in fatalities in American Racing? There is certainly no reason to deny the possibility. The track has reduced the amount of race day Lasix intake to 5cc from 10cc. 5cc is apparently 5000mg. 500mg is enough to lessen calcium in a horse’s body due to increased urination.

I think it’s extremely interesting that if American Thoroughbreds are so reliant on Lasix and yet they do well at meetings like Royal Ascot and the Dubai World Cup. Take Lady Aurelia, Arrogate and California Chrome for example. They ran arguably their best runs of their careers abroad and without the influence of Lasix.

Lasix is one of those things where you either support it or you don’t. A bit like marmite. Good news for some is that, as of next year, two year olds won’t be allowed to be treated with it within twenty four hours of racing and in 2021, the ban will stretch to Stakes races at the participating tracks regardless of age. When these two year olds become three year olds though, they can be treated with it in non Stakes races. This last part isn’t great but its a step in the right direction.

A similar thing has happened before though – and not worked. In 2012, the Breeders Cup banned Lasix from all their races. In 2013, the ban only covered the Juvenile races. In 2014, the ban had been phased out completely.

I think one of the key phrases in that description is ‘at the participating tracks’. This is one of the reasons why American Racing desperately needs a country-wide governing body to regulate all of these things mentioned.

After hearing about the issues at Santa Anita, it seems as though American Racing needs to band together or will die out along with the strength of the American Thoroughbred breed.

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