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

April 28, 2021

Do all horses bleed? Does Lasix enhance performance? 

The severity by which horses bleed is graded from zero to four. At zero, an endoscopic examination (scope) of a horse’s lungs shows no visible traces of blood. At grades one, two and three, the amount of blood in the lungs is visible and increases respectively, though blood is not necessarily visible in the nostrils. At grade four, epistaxis occurs – acute hemorrhage from the nostril, nasal cavity, or nasopharynx.

Todd Pletcher remarked to the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Jason Frakes “To be honest, we have horses bleed sometimes with Lasix,” Pletcher said. “Sometimes they win and bleed. Sometimes they run poorly and bleed. I think some people have the misconception that if you give a horse Lasix, they will not bleed. That’s not always accurate. Some horses will bleed through Lasix. Those horses when they go off Lasix are probably a bigger issue.”

An article published in The Guardian in 2014 recounted data in two studies. The first was a 2005 study of 744 racehorses in Australia where Lasix is banned on race-day but permitted for training purposes. The study found that horses that bled to a degree less than grade one was four times more likely to win than horses that bled to a level higher than grade two. This pointed to bleeding hindering performance. 

Of the 415 horses in the study which developed Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH), 273 bled to grade one or less. These horses performed as well as a horse that had no trace of blood in their lungs and were nearly twice as likely to finish in one of the top three positions compared with horses with an EIPH of grade two, three or four. 101 horses were diagnosed with grade two bleeding, while 25 bled to grade three. 13 horses had grade four EIPH. The more severe the disorder, the further behind the winner a horse was likely to place.

A subsequent 2009 study of 167 South African racehorses – comparing Lasix with a saline placebo – corroborated the findings of the 2005 Australian study to a certain extent. 

Researchers found that twenty percent of those horses not given Lasix did not bleed, while forty-five percent bled at grade one and twenty-five percent bled at grade two. Ten percent of horses examined bled to a grade higher than two. Thirty-five percent of the horses bled significantly enough to impair performance, with one percent bleeding to grade four severity.

The frequency with which horses are put under the strain of strenuous exercise and the number of times they are subsequently scoped are also factors. 

The South African study showed between forty-three and seventy-five percent of racehorses exhibited signs of EIPH based on the evidence of one scope. 

The 2005 Australian study showed that nearly one hundred percent of horses scoped after three successive strenuous workouts showed some bleeding by the third endoscopic exam.

Trainer Chad Brown told the Louisville Courier-Journal: “I’m a big information guy and I like data, so I’d like to see it researched more and in the future do what’s best for the horses and the industry. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think now is the time with these new rules to obtain a lot of data and look at it.” Brown has a contender in the Kentucky Derby, Highly Motivated, and, in the Kentucky Oaks, Search Results. 

A 1988-89 study Commissioned by the Jockey Club, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine concluded that Lasix enhances performance.

Drug testing and a question of doping

The early history of horse doping is undocumented as far as we know. In ancient Rome it is rumored that the use of mead (an alcoholic drink of fermented honey and water) for chariot racehorses was punishable by death. The next thousand years or so are poorly recorded. In England in 1533 there were reports of a substance likely related to arsenic possibly used as a stimulant in equine competitions. 

After 1800 there was an uptick in records of horses being prevented from competing for being doped. In 1903, British law prohibited horse doping. That same year the New York Times ran the headline – “Dope: Evil of the Turf.” 

Saliva tests were introduced by 1912 in Great Brittan. Competitors were tested for alkaloids such as theobromine, caffeine, cocaine, morphine, and strychnine. 

Doping in human sports has been an issue for decades. After multiple incidents in competitions, in 1928, the International Athletics Federation (IAF) became the first international federation to ban doping in athletic competitions. 32 years later anti-doping testing was implemented.

For horse racing drug testing initially came to the United States in 1933. North American racing had also been inundated by narcotics in that decade – including cocaine, morphine, and heroin, also strychnine and caffeine. 

Prominent horses had been “hopped up” with stimulants for decades. Saliva testing was introduced to detect and prevent the stimulation of horses. While questions always existed over the efficacy of saliva testing incidents decreased notably after its introduction.

The new testing would catch horses that were doped by trainers for an edge and by one stable attempting to sabotage another stable. Many times, the latter was to ensure a win on a large wager. 

When pari-mutuel betting was legalized across the U.S. in 1933 the doping of horses skyrocketed. There were federal indictments of major racing licensees that year in Chicago and in Detroit for using narcotics on horses. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics claimed that in the Chicago case alone 250 horses had been injected with one drug or another. 

Interestingly, up until this point, where stimulants and narcotics were beginning to be understood as a means of “cheating”, horses were regularly given what were legitimate “tonics”, usually made up of the aforementioned drugs, to encourage things like appetite and a lustrous coat. In fact, Australian champion Phar Lap was regularly given “tonics” which also often contained arsenic, which is widely accepted to have contributed to his death in 1932. 

Of course, those who wish to cheat changed the game plan and given the rudimentary nature of the saliva test new drugs were administered to eluded official detection in following decades. 

When pharmaceuticals came into vogue after World War II horse racing began to experiment with synthetics in the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s unscrupulous horsemen were using adrenaline and Benzedrine. In proceeding decades use of synthetic drugs like Butazolidin and Winstrol and Ventipulmin became prominent. 

As the drugs changed so did the testing. In the mid-1980s, equine drug testing was dependent on a screening technique called thin layer chromatography (TLC), which is not particularly sensitive technology. 

In 1988 Enzyme Linked Immuno Sorbent Assay (ELISA) testing was introduced to racing by a group at the University of Kentucky. It soon became the primary technique employed in equine drug testing. Simply put, an ELISA test is a variant on the home pregnancy test technology. 

It requires a drop of urine, can be performed relatively rapidly, is highly sensitive, and test results can be read by eye. Initially, the ELISA tests were “one-step” tests meaning that urine was added to the test well followed by the addition of antibody for the test. This was expensive as much more antibody was wasted than reacted on the test. Later, a cheaper “two-step” method was devised. 

Read Part Three tomorrow in Past The Wire

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By Maribeth Kalinich, Editor

Contributing Authors

MB Kalinich

Maribeth Kalinich is a racing enthusiast and historian who writes about current racing events, Thoroughbred history and preservation of historic racing sites. Growing up in...

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