Our sport is going in the direction of less and less use of Lasix. Whether this is rational, productive or desirable is our topic of discussion. We've just seen this year's "Road to the Kentucky Derby" pattern its rules in a way that discourages Lasix, and penalize anyone using it.
The subject of Lasix is red-hot on the table of bureaucrats and anti-racing activists, and is at risk of being targeted and wiped out altogether.
First of all, horses are given Lasix (furosemide) to help prevent bleeding in their lungs. It is administered hours before a competition, and followed up with a careful process to see it through.
This window of time, from the horse receiving the Lasix to competing with it, is where the controversy comes in. Some say it's too taxing on the horse's health, others say it's needed precisely for its health.
Tyler Conner's Perspective
After pointing this all to Tyler, his thoughts were as follows:
Tyler: "I think that if the sport wants to go in the direction of no Lasix, it has to be started during the two-year-old year of that crop. I don't believe that it's fair to force older horses that have been running on Lasix for years, to run without it just for certain races. I think that's the most fair way to do it."
Note that a known side-effect of Lasix is that horses can lose liters of urine in the hour following the dose of the treatment. To address this, a common practice is to fast a horse from drinking any water during the hours leading up to the race.
Consequently this causes the horse to lose weight, sometimes 10-20lbs, which is 0.1 to 0.2% of its body weight (for the average 1000lbs horse).
Tyler: "I think there are both positives and negatives to Lasix. Clearly there are some horses who can't run without it. So if we want to keep more horses around then I do believe trainers should be able to use it at their discretion. The negative part to me is the way it makes horses feel. I do believe it drains them of a lot of nutrients and electrolytes, taking away a lot of their energy for race day, which has to be tough on them."
Tyler continued: "I have used it before to lose weight and I can tell you that it does not make me want to do any physical activity. The hard part is that it has to be a level playing field. I know trainers who don't want to use it, wouldn't want to run against horses who are on it. That's the biggest battle with this whole argument I believe."
Technically, Lasix aims to decrease blood pressure and prevent bleeding in horses suffering from EIPH (Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage), which can make it safer, more comfortable for a horse to compete.
A lighter horse expends less energy and takes longer to fatigue. The treatment has been shown to help horses expend less energy, which results in less lactate build up. This leads to less reliance on anaerobic pathways than aerobic, and therefore, using less oxygen and the total efficiency improves.
For a deeper look at Lasix and its connection to lactic acid, we refer you to Frank Angst's article, where Dr. Joe Pagan discusses the importance of making sure horses are nutritionally prepared and replenished when using Lasix.
Tyler: "I personally don't know anyone who isn't pro Lasix. I haven't heard any trainers tell me that they would rather run without it. I think they believe it protects the horses because if they bleed badly enough, they could potentially die, which obviously does happen with Lasix but is very rare, as far as I know. Not many jockeys talk about this but personally I do think we would lose a lot of horses by taking Lasix away, and we would see a lot more horses bleeding during races or even morning workouts —which is a horrible look to the public, and that's the last thing the sport needs."
When asked if there were any alternatives, he's unsure if there are any.
Tyler: "I don't know if there are any alternatives to this, besides running with nothing. I know there are other medications to help bleeding, which obviously people would use if they took Lasix away. Some might not be legal. If there were a medication that was healthier for a horse than Lasix, and does the same thing to help bleeding, then I think that would be our best way to go."
HRR's Valerie Mellema, who grew up around, works with, and owns horses, was kind in providing interesting questions and insights to the problem of Lasix. She has mixed feelings on the move away from Lasix. While she agrees that horses should be expected to run medication-free, which many can, she also believes in doing what's best for the horse.
The questions she put forth for the industry to answer are: are our genetics in a place where we can move away from Lasix without harming horses? Do we need to look at the way we are breeding horses and gradually making this change? This, incidentally, would be the smart route versus just cutting it off completely, Valerie says.
Valerie explains how there are areas in the country in high elevations where Lasix is almost a necessity. If a horse isn't training on a regular basis, it's a huge change in environment for them. She has a friend whose horse died in the test barn after winning a race because his lungs bled out. She was horrified. The horse had been moved there weeks ahead of time so that he could acclimate to the elevation.
In addressing the favorite argument of anti-Lasix people, which is "Europeans don't use Lasix", Valerie maintains that that's not entirely true—many of them train on Lasix but they don't run on Lasix. (Read the full elaboration here). When they do, some trainers try to go for as low medication as possible. When Valerie was a partner, they tried to avoid excess medication. But their horse had throat surgery so he did run on Lasix for his own well-being. She concluded that just like people, medications should be specific to the horse, and she doesn't believe medicating an entire barn on the same drugs just because they are allowed.
One more important reason to read Valerie's article is because she addresses the argument of trainers supposedly using Lasix to mask other drugs. Again, read it here.
We'd like to thank Tyler Conner and Valerie Mellema for sharing their perspective. We're also grateful for those individuals who refused to speak on the issue, but still directed us on where to get more information. We plan to revisit this subject as it continues to develop, so stay tuned!
Sources: Vetlineequine, Adrianvet, Frank Angst, Bloodhorse, Valerie Mellema, GuaranteedTipSheet