Keeping Score

The Kentucky Derby Must Kick Its Drug Problem

The U.S. and Canada are among the few countries that let horses take a performance-enhancing drug on race day. Why this practice is hurting horse racing and should be stopped

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A horse trains at Churchill Downs on May 5, 2011, in Louisville, Kentucky

Around 6:24 p.m. E.T. on the evening of Saturday, May 7, at the hallowed Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky, Dialed In, the favorite in the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby, will enter the starting gate. Maybe you’re picking him. Or maybe you’re more inclined to go with your heart and root for Mucho Macho Man, trained by a woman who survived a heart transplant. Or maybe you want to really hit it big and are putting a few bucks down on one of the long shots, like Watch Me Go or Derby Kitten.

No matter which 3-year-old colt you pick to win the Derby, there’s something you probably don’t know about him. He’s very likely running the race with a performance-enhancing drug in his system.

(See pictures of the Kentucky Derby.)

Throughout the world, drugs are banned on race day. In the U.S., for example, horses can’t test positive for anabolic steroids like equipoise and Winstrol or be treated with antiulcer medications or even Advil-like anti-inflammatory drugs. But the U.S. and Canada are among the very few countries where horses can receive injections of furosemide, a diuretic also known as Lasix, or Salix, up to four hours before post time. This drug is barred in Hong Kong, England and most other places that host horse races. Within racing, Lasix is recognized as a performance-enhancing drug. Imagine if, at the Olympics, world-class sprinters like Usain Bolt were permitted to be treated with a performance-enhancing drug four hours before the race. That’s essentially what happens in North American horse racing.

After receiving the diuretic, the horse urinates, and yes, he or she “pisses like a racehorse.” The loss of body fluid typically causes the horse to shed 10 to 20 lb. (4.5 to 9 kg); the lighter the horse, the faster it can run. In 1991, just 45% of American horses got Lasix injections before their starts, according to the Jockey Club, the breed registry for all North American thoroughbred horses. Last year, 95% of all horses were on race-day Lasix.

After a few high-profile steroid incidents — especially those involving Rick Dutrow, the trainer of 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Big Brown, who gave steroids to several of his horses — American racing has taken positive steps to keep anabolics out of the game. Now, it’s about time the U.S. joined the rest of the racing world and ended the use of a different type of performance-enhancer on race day. “Lasix is a very polarizing subject in racing right now,” says Scott Palmer, a veterinarian who runs the New Jersey Equine Clinic and also heads the racing committee of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. “This a huge deal. Racing in America is in trouble, and medication is a part of that. It makes a world of sense to send a horse to the gate free of the influence of any medication.”

(See why, in Britain, horse racing and betting are no longer mates.)

Race-day drugs present all kinds of problems. Start with the horse. The sport itself already exerts tremendous pressure on the animal. So is it humane to stick needles in horses just four hours before the start of a race? Drugs also mask the weaknesses in racehorses. The goal of thoroughbred breeding is to produce the strongest, fastest horse possible. But if an overwhelming majority of American horses run on drugs, how can breeders know which horses are really naturally gifted? How can breeders truly know if a stud will sire a horse that is prepared for the rigors of racing? “America’s reputation has taken a hit on the world stage,” says Lincoln Collins, director of Three Chimneys, one of the U.S.’s top breeding farms. Collins has conducted racing business in 22 countries. “And it’s because there’s a perception that American racehorses are on drugs.”

Lasix defenders, particularly horse trainers, say it’s not that simple. They point to furosemide’s therapeutic effects. (Keep in mind that trainers do have an economic incentive to win.) Lasix originally came into racing some 30 or so years ago because it was found to reduce the incidence and severity of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH) — bleeding from the lungs — in horses. It was intended to help the horses known as “bleeders.” And in fact, a 2009 study, published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, found that within a sample of thoroughbreds racing in South Africa, the prerace administration of Lasix decreased the incidence and severity of EIPH. Still, Rick Arthur, equine medical director at the University of California at Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine, points out that over half the horses in the study still had some blood in their airways after furosemide was administered. Further, for the horses on Lasix, the average reduction in EIPH was just half a grade on a scale that went from zero to four.

Despite the therapeutic benefits of Lasix, the drug should be banned on race day. After all, 95% of U.S. horses run on Lasix, and 95% of U.S. horses aren’t bleeders; it’s clear the drug is being abused. “The horses in jurisdictions around the world are just as healthy as horses in the U.S.,” says Arthur. “That makes me wonder how effective furosemide is in controlling the degree of the bleeding. Are we helping the horse, or are we really kidding ourselves?”

Here’s one solution that treats both the horse and the sport with respect: don’t let bleeders race in the first place. We have technology that can monitor the degree of hemorrhaging in a horse’s airways, both before and after a race. If a horse shows a history of bleeding, why put the animal at further risk, either with or without Lasix? This move would eliminate any need for Lasix and be truly in the best interests of the animal. Hong Kong, for instance, employs a strong regulatory system, mandating 30 days of full rest and a three-month break from racing for horses that bleed through the nostrils after a race. Horses take the same break if they excessively bleed a second time and are then retired from racing after a third nosebleed incident. Palmer, the director of the New Jersey Equine Clinic, notes that only 1.4% of Hong Kong horses have retired due to bleeding.

When it comes to drugs in horse racing, can the rest of the globe really have it all wrong? “Are we so right in racing in the U.S.?” asks Collins, who is from the U.K. “The notion of some kind of American exceptionalism when it comes to giving horses drugs makes no sense.”

(See “The Derby: Kentucky Fights to Keep Horse Supremacy.”)

Fortunately, there’s momentum to erase racing’s Lasix problem. On May 4, a pair of Congressmen — Representative Edward Whitfield, Republican of Kentucky, and Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico — introduced legislation banning the practice. Even if the law goes nowhere, the proposal will raise public awareness of the issue and could spur state racing authorities to act. The new chair of Racing Commissioners International, a powerful association of racing authorities who can come together to rewrite the rules, opposes race-day drugs (though the RCI itself has promised only to “revisit” the issue). The Breeders’ Cup is developing a plan to ban race-day meds. In June, a group of three top racing organizations — the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association — will hold an international summit to address the issue.

When it comes to cleaning up racing, these folks should move faster than Secretariat. “Hay, oats, and water — that’s all you need to achieve the dream,” says Collins. As we’ve seen in so many other sports, totally eliminating performance enhancers is never easy. But a drug-free Kentucky Derby is a worthwhile goal.