Horse Racing Reflections Part 2: The Lasix Problem in American Racing

The use of Lasix in horse racing is something that may be more harmful than beneficial.

Updated: Sept. 25, 2018 • 10:35 AM ET


Lasix is one of the most controversial uses in horse racing.

Long before Lin-Manuel Miranda brought our most important Founding Father to Broadway, I thought that Alexander Hamilton was right about the need for a strong centralized federal government that could legislate and solve problems. During the 1780s, as the United States flailed and meandered down the stretch to independence and beyond, the debates raged over who would control government.

Would it be the states, which had struggled to turn themselves from colonies into sovereign blobs on a map? Or would power emanate from a government of representatives that squabbled and squawked over the inability to raise money and protect the new nation? Something called Federalism won out that would try to balance the needs of the country with those of the states. Since then, we have seen this country brim and bulge as power continues to grow big government, even beyond Hamilton’s vision.

Interestingly enough, horse racing has a similar problem to that of the country. Much like the government of the early 1780s before the Constitution, the sport is a decentralized entity.

The Maryland Jockey Club does its thing; the New York Racing Association (NYRA) crafts its own policies and companies like Twin Spires (which owns Churchill Downs, Arlington Park and the Fair Grounds Race Course) promote their own agendas. To paraphrase Heath Ledger’s Joker in the Dark Knight, the schemers seem to all have their own plans.

This topic of decentralization seems particularly problematic when it comes to the question of horses and the use of a chemical called Lasix (known originally as Furosemide). As previously mentioned, horses cannot govern what goes into their systems before a race. Humans do that and keeping with the Hamiltonian theme, they are inherently poor decision makers when it comes to making choices for their equine athletes. Of course, not all connections are of this ilk, but here is the problem: Lasix has both helpful and harmful effects; and the latter, in my opinion, outweighs the former.

First, the doping of horses, either to make them run faster or slower, has a long history in America. Like opioids, the phenomenon is not new. More recently though, Lasix was invented to stop the bleeding in a horse’s lungs, which is due to the exertion brought on by a race. In an effort to be humane to horses, most state racing authorities conceived that the bleeding was not good. Modern horses, unlike their predecessors, don’t run all that much. So, they don’t have the opportunity to build-up stronger constitutions. Thus, their lungs bleed.

Those that advocate Lasix see it as a gentler means of dealing with that bleeding, which they conceive makes this compound not a drug at all, but rather a medication. Lasix has some side effects though, specifically the loss of up to 25 pounds of water during a race by horses that are given the drug. And, more importantly, it chemically masks other maladies that might become undetected by track veterinarians. Heart conditions, other pulmonary issues and a host of other issues become silent killers.

Just this past year, Congress tossed its hat in the ring, as it sometimes does when lobbying pressure is applied, and is considering regulation of Lasix and how it can be applied through the aptly-named Horse Racing Integrity Act. Animal rights groups and portions of the horse racing community are taking an active interest in how this will play out, which sounds promising.

Clearly something needs to be done. After all, Lasix is banned outside the United States in a host of countries that have strong cultural and historical ties to racing. But, will regulation at the federal level be the answer?

I’m not sure. Big government and sports don’t always jibe when it comes to the promotion of viable solutions — the steroid hearings with the likes of Rafael Palmeiro and Alex Rodriguez come to mind.

Compounding this, oversight of a Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority (HAD MEDS might be an appropriate acronym) would come from the Federal Trade Commission. That’s worrisome considering the FTC’s past concerning regulating drugs like aspirin. Their jurisdiction covers a certain purview (like advertising), whereas the Food and Drug Administration has its own territory (like drugs that haven’t gone through trials). At times, the two agencies were at loggerheads, which is never productive.

While I’m a believer in a Hamiltonian vision of America that espouses manufacturing, trade and powerful banking entities, I don’t think that the FTC or any other government agency is the answer. What the industry needs is investment across state lines from a broad spectrum of entities. Horse people, not more bureaucrats, is the answer. The British Horse Racing Authority (BHA) comes to mind as a model for grappling with issues such as doping and race fixing. Good governance should be the order of the day.

At the end of the Revolution, Hamilton was an advocate for making George Washington the King of America. That didn’t happen, thankfully. However, in the same vein, but maybe a less radical idea, would be drawing from aspects of the BHA.

American racing might be able to solve its Lasix problem if we learn to adapt. This can only assist our equine athletes. Much is at stake.

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