I would think using so many drugs would make it hard to tell if the horses are hurt and if they are, how badly. ~Declan
Amid Crown Chase, a Battle for Racing’s Soul
In May 1995, when New York became the last major horse racing center in the United States to legalize the race-day use of Lasix, a diuretic that reduces bleeding in horses’ respiratory systems, the decision was celebrated throughout the thoroughbred industry as a great step forward.
The biggest name in the sport, the trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who had won the previous four Triple Crown races with three horses — some on Lasix and some not — hailed it as the beginning of uniform medication rules. The breeder Seth Hancock, of the prestigious Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, spoke for many when he said New York had finally leveled the playing field.
Now, as yet another quest for racing’s elusive Triple Crown culminates, Lasix, widely regarded as a masking agent for drug abuse, is racing’s last big unresolved medication issue and the center of an internal struggle pitting owners and breeders against trainers and veterinarians.
Less than a month before the Derby, an undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals focused harshly on the stable of Steve Asmussen, one of the sport’s most successful trainers. The group filed charges of neglect, mistreatment and drugging of animals with the Kentucky and New York racing authorities.
Last month, the HBO program “Real Sports” essentially repeated a New York Times account of the PETA allegations, with graphic video footage of horses breaking down. Asmussen fumbled his way through a difficult on-camera cross-examination, asserting that he truly cares for horses and that everything he has been accused of is legal.
A “60 Minutes Sports” look at the racing industry’s turmoil is scheduled to be presented Wednesday on Showtime, three days before the Belmont Stakes.
After watching the “Real Sports” presentation, the prominent owner and breeder Bill Casner, a founder of WinStar Farm in Kentucky, wrote a letter to the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, which he once headed, acknowledging that “the reality of the broadcast is that all of it is true” and that the industry had created those conditions with a “plethora of legal medications with little regulation or oversight.”
The most volatile and disheartening disclosure of the PETA investigation and the subsequent follow-up reporting was the routine feeding of Thyro-L to horses by well-known trainers. Thyro-L is a synthetic hormone in powdered form that is usually prescribed to overweight mares whose hypothyroidism keeps them from becoming pregnant.
Apparently, after some state regulators began to crack down on the abuse of the bronchodilator clenbuterol, some trainers turned to Thyro-L, which is now being blamed for a series of fatal heart attacks in young horses. There were many heart failures in the barns of the most accomplished and admired trainers in the game, including Asmussen, Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher.
Under the duress of questioning by “Real Sports” about an equine heart attack victim in his barn, Asmussen described Thyro-L as a therapeutic medication and the pepped-up heart rate as a side effect. Over months of daily use, Casner said, it would “cause the thyroid to atrophy with the eventual crash of the horse.”
Thyro-L and clenbuterol have long lists of side effects, which is why they are banned in every racing jurisdiction other than North America.
There is little medical research specific to racehorses on either drug, an oddity that might be explained by the fact that administering Lasix to 95 percent of all thoroughbreds, although only 2 percent to 6 percent bleed excessively, is an estimated $100 million revenue stream from owners to veterinarians and drug companies, which most equine researchers depend on to finance their studies.
Studies show that furosemide, the generic name of Lasix, causes dangerous electrolyte imbalances, particularly reduced levels of potassium and calcium, and lowers the count of white blood cells because of bone marrow suppression. When given with corticosteroids, a common practice, the drug damages the joints that fail in training breakdowns.
It is hardly coincidental that today’s horses seldom last long enough to even contest the Triple Crown. The supertrainers start out with dozens of 2-year-olds, most of them expensive sale toppers, but end up with only a few that remain healthy enough for the Kentucky Derby. Of the 11 horses expected to compete in the Belmont, only two come from the usual Triple Crown barns. They are trained by Pletcher.
In the 1950s, American horses averaged 45 career starts. For the foal crop of 2009, the average is 12.4. Those statistics have pushed New York and a group of other Mid-Atlantic states, including Maryland, to adopt tougher uniform drug rules.
This year’s Belmont will permit Lasix, but under the same tougher medication rules as the Preakness; most of the changes are meant to keep therapeutic drugs that thwart pain and enhance performance from being administered close enough to race time to be effective. Previous Triple Crown races in the modern era were contested under three sets of rules. Kentucky was among the first states to legalize Lasix, and for years, Maryland allowed it only for “confirmed bleeders,” depriving Kentucky Derby winners of the advantage they had in Louisville.
Racing’s drug problems remain a long way from resolution. The New York and Kentucky racing authorities postponed action on the PETA charges against Asmussen until after the Belmont. It could easily turn out that all that drug abuse of racehorses is legal, as Asmussen contends and Casner laments. That in itself could serve as a clarion call for a federal law.