A Lasix-Free Triple Crown starting with the 2021 Kentucky Derby: Part Three

April 29, 2021

Introduction of Lasix

When pharmaceuticals became more prevalent after World War II more and more companies became competitive to find more and more new drugs. 

But the drugs coming from major pharmaceutical companies after the war were being used to improve a horse’s performance, and they were remarkably effective. Orders from veterinarians poured in.

The racing authorities were becoming overwhelmed. There was often a lag of years between the synthesis of a human drug for horses and a test for it. 

These new medications also raised the question of what amounted to doping. Testosterone, for instance, became available to trainers in 1947 and allowed them to add spirit to their geldings. Although it was perceived as harmless it was effective. But was it doping?

Furosemide was patented in 1959 and approved for medical use in humans in Europe in 1964. It was approved by the FDA for use in the U.S. on July 1, 1966. 

Usually administered to humans as a pill, Lasix can also be given by venial injection. When taken orally, it typically begins working within an hour, while intravenously, it typically begins working within five minutes.

By 2017, it was the eighteenth most prescribed medication in the U.S. It is on the World Anti-Doping Agency‘s banned drug list for human athletes due to concerns that it may mask other drugs. 

But what was Lasix’s origin of use in horses to address bleeding? 

For more than 300 years horsemen have known it simply as bleeding, a condition as old as the Thoroughbred. For most of that time, however, the cause of it was unknown. 

Only in the 1960s did it become obvious that this bleeding came from burst capillaries inside a horse’s lungs after and during exercise. Blood making its way into the trachea and, in the most severe cases, pouring from the nostrils, and became known as exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging (EIPH). 

By the end of the decade Lasix became the drug that could aid in EIPH. It was a diuretic that flushed out a horse’s system and relieved pressure on the lungs.

However, it was not approved for use in any jurisdiction until in 1974, when the Maryland Racing Commission allowed the general use of Lasix, with a caveat. The public was not advised as to which horses were using Lasix. 

Kentucky legalized Lasix use in 1975 and by April of that year it was legal in twelve states. That same month the eastern edition of the Daily Racing Form started listing the names of all horses at Gulfstream Park in Florida who were racing on Lasix and another legal drug, the anti-inflammatory pain reliever Butazolidin/Phenylbutazone (also known as “Bute”). Pimlico Race Course in Maryland and Keystone in Pennsylvania were soon added after Bute became legal in the those states.

By 1979, Maryland was ready to ban Lasix and Butazolidin use. The Maryland Racing Commission met at Laurel Park with their counterparts from Pennsylvania and West Virginia and issued a statement saying they would work to establish uniform regulations prohibiting the use of both drugs. 

“The intent of the medication program has been abused so much that it is hard to justify,” said Robert W. Banning, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission told Andy Beyer of the Washington Post in 1979. “This has been a cloud that has been hanging over racing, and we felt we had to take a look at our position.”

Some states allowed Lasix use for all racehorses; some allowed it only for confirmed “bleeders.” Maryland’s was one of the most stringent, if not the most confusing. 

In 1983, the owners of Desert Wine went to court the day before the Preakness when Pimlico officials wouldn’t allow their colt to run with Lasix. The judge, an asthmatic, ruled in favor of the horse, who finished second to Deputed Testamony.

On September 1, 1995, New York became the last state in the U.S. to approve the use of Lasix. For decades, New York had prohibited all race-day medications.

The ruling did not affect 1995 Belmont Stakes but on Oct. 28 that year, Belmont played host to the Breeders’ Cup that could run with Lasix. In two previous Breeders’ Cups in New York, horsemen with bleeders had to run them without Lasix.

After the 1995 Preakness, Ken McPeek, who trained Tejano Run, called for a uniform Triple Crown medication rule. Tejano Run had never bled before the Preakness but could use Lasix in Kentucky because he had a lung infection. After the Preakness, the colt came back coughing.

Only alert bettors of the Preakness with the Racing Form knew that Tejano Run was not running on Lasix. There was still no “off-Lasix” designation in the program at Pimlico in 1995.

Lasix or no Lasix, that is the question

For decades drugs in horseracing, especially Lasix, have been discussed and almost banned. And for decades drugs have remained in racing. 

In July 2011, the Breeders’ Cup proposed a ban on Lasix in its two-year-old races beginning in 2012 and all its races in 2013. The American Graded Stakes Committee followed the Breeders’ Cup in August 2011 and approved a ban on Lasix in all its two-year-old graded stakes in 2012.

In August 2013, The Breeders’ Cup lifted the ban and allowed all horses to use the drug starting in 2014.

Also in July 2011, Magna CEO Frank Stronach requested help from the Florida Racing Commission to outlaw all race-day medication, including Lasix, at the upcoming Gulfstream Park meet. In August 2011, Stronach and Gulfstream withdrew the proposal after intense opposition from horsemen’s group.

New York state senator Thomas K. Duane (D-Manhattan) introduced legislation in September 2011 to ban the use of Lasix in any state-sanctioned race.

Frank Stronach, again, made statements in 2013 supporting eliminating Lasix in American racing. In fact, in many conversations with Mr. Stronach, he has told this editor he would like to see all drugs out of horse racing “for the good of the horses.” 

“We must honor the horses and take good care of them because without the horses there would be no racing. Where would humanity be without the horse?” Stronach said. 

“The Godfather”, the 1964 Kentucky Derby and Lasix, maybe

In an article published in ProPublica in 2014, Ryan Goldberg told a fascinating and intricate story of Alex Harthill, a prominent and enterprising veterinarian who kept apprised of pharmaceuticals by reading medical journals. Highly renowned and sought after, he was at the cutting edge of experimenting with human pharmaceutics at the racetrack. Known as “The Godfather” on the backstretch, he also rubbed elbows with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ronald Regan. 

At his own account Harthill had tended 26 Derby winners in his 60-year career, his first charge was 1948 Triple Crown winner Citation. His Derby lineage traced back four generations as his father and grandfather had also cared for Derby winners and contenders.

A man of influence in the world of horseracing, Harthill had the privilege of his own barn on the Churchill backstretch, barn 24, and an office laboratory across the street.

Harthill’s most notable client in 1964 was an odd little late bloomer who came from the Great White North to dazzle racing fans in the lower 48.

Northern Dancer was born in late May 1961 in Toronto and was not even really a 3-year-old when he won the Kentucky Derby that year. His name reflected his place of origin and impeccable pedigree; a maternal grandson of Native Dancer, who had just missed in the Derby by a neck.

The little colt who didn’t sell at auction was bred by E.P. Taylor, a tycoon who rolled his inherited brewery fortune into dozens of Canadian companies.

Northern Dancer won his first five of seven races as a 2-year-old in Canada. When he came to the big leagues of New York in the fall of 1963, he finished the year with two easy victories at Aqueduct — the Sir Gaylord Purse by eight lengths and the Remsen Stakes by two.

Northern Dancer ran that fall of 1963 with quarter crack in his left front hoof. His trainer, Horatio Luro, solicited an inventive California blacksmith to perform a repair. The blacksmith had developed a procedure for vulcanizing a split hoof. Luro, winner of the 1962 Derby with Decidedly, had hopes of running Northern Dancer in the Kentucky Derby in May. 

Heading to Florida as a 3-year-old, after a third-place finish in an allowance at Hialeah, Northern Dancer took the Flamingo Stakes. He then clipped off wins in an allowance on March 28 and the Florida Derby on April 4 at Gulfstream, and the Blue Grass on April 23 at Keeneland. His next start would be the Kentucky Derby on May 2—nine days later. 

In the days before the 1964 Derby, Hill Rise, Northern Dancer’s top rival, looked invincible. When Hill Rise won the Derby Trial on the Tuesday of Derby week, jockey Bill Shoemaker opted to ride Hill Rise over Northern Dancer in the Derby.

With jockey Bill Hartack in the irons, Northern Dancer would go on to beat Hill Rise by a neck in the 1964 Kentucky Derby in a time of 2:00 flat. And it would have been all champagne and roses had not whispers of the “L” word occurred. (Could the Lasix he was rumored to have been given possibly have kept a bleeding attack at bay? We will never know.)

1964 Kentucky Derby

Harthill stated in a 2002 interview in the Daily Racing Form that he had administered Lasix to Northern Dancer before the 1964 Derby. This was two years before 1966 FDA approval of use in humans. 

In the interview with Jay Hovdey, Harthill described how track security had been following him and that he had to be surreptitious. 

“So I got a vet I knew from out of town to come along with me,” Harthill recounted. “I told him I was going to turn to the right, and would he go that way and take this little syringe down to this private barn, barn 24 (the aforementioned private barn he kept at Churchill), stall 23, and give this to that horse. There would be a guy there called Will. He’d be waiting.”

Hovdey told this editor that there was no way to confirm Harthill’s statement at the time, or in the present. Harthill was quoted verbatim. 

While Harthill’s “work” with drugs and horses in the 1960s may have appeared to have almost crossed the line, it technically wasn’t illegal. There was no testing for such drugs at the time because they had not yet been approved. And those unsure of his intent didn’t believe he ever intended to harm horses. 

Regardless of suspicions, the record of Northern Dancer as the 1964 Kentucky Derby winner still stands. He would go on to win the Preakness but finished third in the Belmont Stakes. 

1964 Preakness


The plucky little horse’s last win would be Canada’s Queen’s Plate in June 1964. He pulled up lame in July with a bowed tendon after a workout at Belmont. Northern Dancer would end his brief 10-month career with 18 starts, 14 wins, 2 seconds and 2 third place finishes. 

Northern Dancer was named the Champion 3-year-old Colt of 1964 in the United States. He was also named the three-year-old Champion in Canada, Canadian Horse of the Year and Canadian Athlete of the Year.

1964 Belmont Stakes (Note: The Belmont Stakes was run at Aqueduct from 1963 through 1966 because of construction at Belmont.)

As a stallion with a regal pedigree his yearlings were highly sought. His progeny became champions and sired champions. Today, his iconic bloodline is global and just about every Thoroughbred today features his name in their pedigree. 

Four years after Northern Dancer’s Derby victory, Dancer’s Image, a son of Native Dancer, crossed the finish line first in the 1968 Kentucky Derby. 

Three days later Kentucky racing authorities announced that the colt had tested positive for traces of Bute, an anti-inflammatory drug that was later legalized in Kentucky and other states. 

Dancer’s Image was disqualified and placed last. Forward Pass, who finished second, was named the victor. Harthill, who had been treating Dancer’s Image, was right in the middle of the controversy.

Other than the Bute dosage Harthill admittedly administered to Dancer’s Image six days before the race, no one ever admitted to giving the horse the drug so close to the race. For it to be found in Dancer’s Image’s urine it had to be administered close to the race because less than 2% is excreted in the urine as unchanged drug. 

According to an article in Science Direct, because Bute can mask symptoms of lameness in horses for several days after therapy, it may be used to disguise lameness during soundness examinations or for competitive purposes.

After investigations, Harthill denied any culpability, but given the choice of a $500 fine or a 30-day suspension, he paid the fine. A parking ticket for a man of his stature and wealth. 

Dancer’s Image had been the first and only Kentucky Derby winner to be disqualified. That was until Maximum Security in 2019. But that’s another story entirely. 

Read parts one and two on Past The Wire

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By Maribeth Kalinich, Editor

Contributing Authors

MariBeth Kalinich, Senior Editor, Past the Wire

Maribeth Kalinich, Senior Editor, Graphic Designer

Maribeth Kalinich grew up in a family with a love for horses, a passion for Thoroughbred horse racing and a taste for playing the ponies....

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