It was a race out of a boy's adventure book, with a furious finish: three horses neck and neck and neck. There was the hometown horse holding off the challenge of his great rival, and running right with them the slightly mysterious newcomer with the hot reputation. At Monmouth Park in New Jersey on Saturday, the Haskell Invitational Handicap had it all—including the shadowy presence of a drug called Lasix.
At the wire it was Belmont Stakes winner Bet Twice, on his home track of Monmouth, edging Alysheba, the colt that had narrowly beaten him in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. A breath behind was Lost Code, the phenom from the Midwest who led for most of the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Haskell.
Before the race the one sure winner figured to be the track itself, a small jewel of a course on the Jersey Shore. A few months ago nobody could have foreseen that the 20th running of the Haskell, a respected but rarely sensational Grade 1 race, would be a key event in the championship competition among 3-year-olds, played out before Monmouth's biggest crowd—32,836—since 1971.
But hovering over the track in the week leading up to race day was the specter of Lasix, a drug given to horses to inhibit bleeding in the lungs. In common use at American racetracks for some 15 years, Lasix, or furosemide (see box, page 41), didn't loom large in the public eye until Alysheba, a Lasix-treated colt, won the Kentucky Derby on May 2. Before Alysheba was put on the drug, he had lost seven of eight starts. After the Derby, still on Lasix, Alysheba went on to win the Preakness. Then came the Belmont on June 6. The New York State racing board does not permit race-day use of Lasix, and Alysheba, running without the drug, finished an undistinguished fourth, 14 lengths behind Bet Twice, who has never been treated with Lasix.
August 9, 1987
Eight weeks later, they would meet again in the Haskell—with an added attraction. While Alysheba and Bet Twice had been fighting it out on the Triple Crown tracks, a bargain-basement colt named Lost Code, bought as a two-year-old for $30,000 complete with a clubbed right forefoot, had won seven straight stakes races at less fashionable venues like Birmingham and Thistledown. But if ever a colt had a Lasix habit it was Lost Code. In his first nine Lasix-less starts he had but two wins. Once put on the drug, Lost Code was undefeated.
From the time it became clear that this was a three-horse race (the two other entries were never a factor), it was impossible to get away from the Lasix Factor. Handicapping suffered from imponderables. Would Alysheba—on Lasix again, as allowed in New Jersey—regain the form to beat Bet Twice? And was Lost Code, dependent on Lasix, really enough horse to compete in this company?
Then, a week before the race, trainer Jack Van Berg dropped a bombshell that further confused the situation, declaring that Alysheba would run without benefit of the drug. "I'm sick of hearing about Lasix," he said. Later in the week Van Berg explained: "We're going to the Travers [at Saratoga on Aug. 22], and they don't run on Lasix up there. So it's better for the horse and better for the public if we run without it this time."
Around the backstretch, however, there were other views of Van Berg's abrupt—and perhaps courageous—change of plan. One concerned Alysheba's value on syndication. A clean, Lasix-less win in the Haskell could add from $2 million to $5 million to the colt's value as a stallion. But Bet Twice's trainer, Jimmy Croll, said Van Berg's decision was predictable: It was plain, Croll indicated, that the five hours which Alysheba would have to spend in a detention barn once Lasix had been administered (in accordance with New Jersey regulations) would be so unsettling for the horse that the treatment would be counterproductive.
Five hours in a detention barn was not about to deter Bill Donovan, trainer of Lost Code. "Lasix has been a godsend to me," said Donovan, a veteran of the backstretch who has never had a horse like Lost Code, winner of $929,096. "Ban it? Hey, I'm a horseman. I make my living doing this. When you have to make a living out of these bums, you do whatever you have to to win. It's almost as if the Lord came down and said, 'Bill, I'm going to put my arm around you, son, and put you out of your misery.' Thirty years I've sweated and hustled, drove vans all night, ponied horses all day, mucked stalls, hotwalked horses, broke yearlings, got thrown, stomped, bit and kicked, traveled all the leaky-roof circuits from Ellis Park to Jefferson Downs to Shenandoah to Water ford. It wasn't so easy." He looked around and smiled. "This is better."
Lasix was his ticket. After mediocre performances by Lost Code as a 2-year-old in Maryland, Donovan had the colt "scoped" (examined for microscopic blood traces in the lungs) by two vets. The results came up negative, and he shipped Lost Code to Alabama. "We sprinted him there," Donovan recalls, "and he gushed blood all over the floor, all over the walls of his stall. We called the vet in and he put him on the Lasix list. I ran him in Birmingham on Lasix for the first time, and he won impressively. So I've kept him on it ever since. How could I change?"
With Lasix the talk of the track, the odds before the Haskell had fluctuated wildly. As the horses paraded in the paddock, Lost Code was the 6-5 favorite, but Donovan's colt left the gate as third favorite at 2-1. Bet Twice finally went off as the favorite, at 6-5, with Alysheba the 3-2 second choice. Under jockey Gene St. Leon, Lost Code took the lead immediately and held it, though not by much more than two lengths. Then at the head of the stretch, Bet Twice, with Craig Perret up, moved on the outside. Chris McCarron, on Alysheba, waited for a hole to open up on the rail, but finally chose to swing wide. Alysheba lost ground and appeared to be a Lasix-less loser. But now he came charging down the stretch, just a tick too late to overtake Bet Twice, who finished a neck in front. The game Lost Code came in third, another neck back.
Alysheba's strong finish, and the exceptionally fast winning time—1:47, a fifth of a second off the track record—momentarily vindicated Van Berg's decision to eschew Lasix. But serious questions remained. In the opinion of many who love the sport, the growing use of a drug of such uncertain effects threatens to destroy the validity of the ultimate tests of the American thoroughbred.
"Bleeding can be prevented by other drugs," says Dr. George A. Maylin, a professor of veterinary medicine at Cornell University and director of drug testing for the New York Stale Racing and Wagering Board. "So why does everybody want to use Lasix? Probably because of its aid to performance. Many of us are skeptical about Lasix simply because of the indiscriminate way it is used. The whole question is still in the realm of black magic. Voodoo. Some of the horsemen using this stuff are saying, 'I'm not sure it does any good, but if my competitor is using it, I don't want him to have the edge.' That is classic folklore." However, like trainer Donovan, many of the horsemen who favor the use of Lasix contend that it's a matter of economic survival. Their basic reasoning is simple: Lasix, regardless of exactly how it works, enables horses that would not be able to run without it to run competitively. Trainers and track owners are businessmen who want to make money. They are joined in this pursuit by the various state racing commissions, which are prodded by state governments eager to produce big tax revenues. These days tracks may be in use 10 months of the year, and programs have to be filled any way they can. At the bush tracks the pressure is still greater: Because of the small purses, a horse may have to be raced every 12 days or so to earn its keep—its hay, oats, water and medication. And at the big tracks, as well as in the bushes, there is a chronic shortage of horses. To fill the stalls, to fill the programs, track owners and trainers are inclined to go along with anything that helps keep a horse running.
Bud Delp, who now trains at Arlington Park, recalls times in the '70s when he had as many as 75 horses in training, running on tracks throughout Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. "I ran every single horse I trained on Lasix," says Delp. "Every single solitary one. I had no problems and I won a lot of races. Yeah, Lasix gives them a lift."
Still, other horsemen insist that the drug is merely a "medication," not a performance enhancer. Says Charlie Whittingham, the successful California trainer, "Lasix doesn't move a horse up at all. That is what the press thinks. It just stops him from bleeding. Heck, sometimes it'll run worse"
As diverse as the opinions on Lasix are, so are the state rules governing its use. New York bans the race-day use of Lasix, as do Montana, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Arizona. All other states permit Lasix, but with varying regulations. Florida, Illinois and Maryland allow Lasix on race day, but with varying restrictions. California is permissive, Kentucky ultrapermissive. In this year's Kentucky Derby, 13 of the 17 starters were on either Lasix or Bute or both.
For the betting public, the scene is further muddled. The trackside thinking these days is, find yourself a nice horse racing on Lasix for the first time. That's easy in Kentucky, where first-time Lasix users are listed on the program, but it's trickier in Florida, where the program designates Lasix users but not those making their debuts on the drug. In California each track makes its own decision whether or. not to designate first-time users. Insiders will get the information anyway, of course, but not Joe Average in the $2 line. Says trainer MacKenzie Miller, who works out of Belmont Park, "Lasix may be the greatest thing in the world for bleeders, but you cannot have it in one state and not in another. It's not fair to the public, and it's the public that makes this thing go."
Last February, after his election as Governor of Maryland, William Schaefer did not extend the term of Joe Hickey, one of the state's three racing commissioners. Hickey manages Windfields Farm, a prestigious Maryland breeding operation. "I sponsored a movement to prohibit the use of Lasix in Grade 1 races in Maryland," he says. "It was my thought that these are championship races, and we will be breeding to their winners for the next 25 years. If we are basing the future of the breed on them, then we want the results in big races to be without qualification. Lasix improves form. We don't want a horse to go through history with an asterisk after his name—or an L for Lasix."
While opinions remain sharply divided, some in the industry have proposed a compromise that is beginning to attract support: that horses be allowed treatment with Lasix in all states under a single consistent set of rules—but that Lasix be banned from all Grade 1 races, championship events such as the Breeders' Cup series and the Triple Crown races. (At present there are some 115 Grade 1 races in the U.S.) Such a plan, say its advocates, would serve the economic needs of the industry but preserve the integrity of racing's premier events, those which tend to determine the breeding stock of the future.
Meanwhile, the frustration lingers. After Alysheba's second-place finish in the Haskell, a feisty Van Berg announced, "Anybody says anything about Lasix and I'll get up and swing at him. I'll hit him straight in the nose." His aggravation is understandable—but surely there's a better solution.
WHAT THE MEDICS SAY
What exactly is Lasix?
It's the brand name under which furosemide, a potent diuretic, is marketed in the U.S. Also used to treat humans, furosemide increases urination and thereby reduces edema—internal accumulation of fluids—and lowers blood pressure. But when Lasix was first encountered by American horsemen in the early '70s, the drug was hailed not so much for these clinically established qualities as for its reputed effect on what veterinary scientists call Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage, or EIPH, the cause of which is still largely unknown.
Horsemen know EIPH simply as "bleeding," a classic example of which occurred in this year's Kentucky Derby when Demons Begone bled profusely from the nostrils as he reached the backstretch and had to be pulled up. Horses breathe almost exclusively through their nostrils. If the lungs and nostrils are congested with blood, choking ensues. Lasix appears to reduce bleeding, most likely by lowering a horse's blood pressure—though veterinarians aren't certain. At the same time, the general reduction of fluids in the animal's body tends to enlarge the respiratory area of the trachea, facilitating breathing.
The drug also appears to enhance racing performance. Dr. George A. Maylin, a Cornell University veterinarian, says, "Lasix is the only drug that I am aware of, of which it has been so conclusively demonstrated that it improves performance. There is no data for amphetamines, no data for etorphine, that suggests these drugs can improve performance like Lasix."
In a seminal study published in April 1985, a research team led by Dr. L.R. Soma of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine analyzed 128 thoroughbreds then running in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Three groups of the horses were known to be affected by EIPH in various degrees; the fourth was a control group of nonbleeders. Their performances were followed over 10 races. In the first five the EIPH groups went untreated; in the last five they were injected with Lasix. Group 4 was untreated throughout. Results were analyzed according to average finishing positions and time. Two of the EIPH groups showed significant improvement on Lasix. In Race 6, with the first use of Lasix by the EIPH horses, improvement was particularly sharp. The control group showed no significant performance change.
It is unclear whether it is only reduced bleeding and enhanced breathing that improves a horse's performance, or whether Lasix also provides some kind of additional boost, or "lift," as horsemen put it. There have been no studies yet on the impact of Lasix on nonbleeders, which might indicate the drug's secondary effects.
What is certain about Lasix is that it is a diuretic. Normally, says Maylin, a horse might urinate an average of one-half liter in an hour. With Lasix, that rate can go up to 20 liters per hour during peak effectiveness—usually within two hours of injection of the drug. Of concern to many in racing is the fact that Lasix, by increasing urination, can dilute, and thus effectively mask, other—illegal—drugs that might be given a horse before a race.