We’re just five days from the first major international races of 2020 - and the Stronach Group’s latest high-profile move in the effort to reduce the use of race-day Lasix in the United States. But does the fact that Saturday’s Pegasus World Cup races at Gulfstream Park - the $3 million dirt invitational and the $1 million turf equivalent - will be run medication-free for the first time actually make much difference?
Chantilly-based correspondent John Gilmore asked a number of racing figures what they thought.
Barry Irwin, Team Valor
“I am all for drug-free racing. I have sent horses to run medication-free all over the world and have imported horses to race [in the U.S.] medication-free. But I wouldn’t send a horse to run without Lasix if it was a chronic bleeder. Look, any horse is capable of bleeding on any given day regardless if it does not bleed all the time. So selecting the correct horses for the job is part of a trainer’s job.
“Also, plenty of horses that bleed in Europe are sent to race here because Lasix can help them. So, when it is taken away, I can see that this circumstance would annoy a trainer with a good horse that bleeds in the U.S. and is prevented from running on Lasix in a big race.
“I foresee a day in the not-too-distant future when all Graded races in America will be run medication-free. It is gradually happening right now.
“I do not believe that racing on dirt is more stressful on a racehorse than racing on turf, and I don’t subscribe to the notion that it is the root cause of bleeding. As far as I know, horses do not bleed more often in the U.S. than they do in Europe. And, if they do, it probably has more to do with the more sensible way horses are trained [in Europe] than [by] their American counterparts.”
Kenny McPeek, U.S. trainer
“I would definitely use Lasix if the horse was a prolific bleeder and could benefit when training and racing. Every horse is different, and a decision to use Lasix could also depend on the preference of the owner. While some horses bleed, then not again. It’s a grey area.
“I have had many horses over the years that have run Lasix-free and won good races with them. These include Daddys Lil Darling, who took the [G1] American Oaks at Santa Anita when a 3-year-old in 2017 and had career earnings of over $1.3 million [before selling as a broodmare to Coolmore for $3.5 million at the 2018 Fasig-Tipton November sale].
“If a horse is bleeding regularly, rest is the first priority [as well as] checking eating habits, weight and energy levels. If the horse has so much quality, time is no big deal. For lower-grade horses that run regularly, the usage and access to Lasix is the easy-option plan to keep a horse racing.
“Having said that, I think the Graded Stakes Committee should stop Lasix use for all Graded stakes races, and the current movement away from it is a good step in the right direction. These horses can end up as black-type colts and fillies for breeding and their offspring can prove more attractive for buyers when listed as medication-free during their racing career.
“If [we wish for] more American horses to participate in international races, it's imperative that we come in line banning race-day medication, though still keeping a medication system in place for lower-grade horses who could benefit from Lasix.
“I don’t think during the 30 years Lasix has been in use, it has had any adverse effect on future breeding, and trainers in the States have got the habit of using it. In France, the pace of race is different, as are the tracks, with straight line sprints and gradual turns for longer races, with a tendency of slower starts and faster finishes over the last couple of furlongs.
“In the States, it’s different, with sharp-turn mainly dirt tracks for fast training work and explosive race starts and speed throughout the race, for one and two turns. But I don’t see any connection as to whether this style of racing and training causes the possibility for racehorses to be bleeders.”
Neil Drysdale, U.S. trainer
“I feel American racing would be much better off if they followed international regulations banning raceday medication. We are heading in the right direction here in California with 2-year-old races preventing raceday usage of Lasix from this year. Hopefully, other American states will eventually do likewise.”
Chad Brown, U.S. trainer
The world #2 trainer, who saddled Bricks And Mortar to win the Pegasus Turf last year, told The Blood-Horse last month that the Lasix ruling could have an impact when it came to deciding which horses to run. We asked Brown for clarification, saying surely the non-use of race-day Lasix made for a level playing field for all runners. Brown asked, “What if they are bleeders?” He added, “Plenty of horses sent from France to the U.S. are bleeders.” He did not elaborate.
Gina Rarick, American trainer based in France
“A well-conditioned, healthy horse kept in a proper environment (meaning as little dust around as possible) shouldn’t bleed. But many, many horses will occasionally bleed - usually a grade one of five [grades of bleeding] and not enough to impact performance.
“An occasional bleed could be the result of a temporary uptake in dusty air (change in bedding, change in climate, higher pollution, etc.) or a drop in the immune system that might allow a respiratory problem that is subclinical so the trainer doesn’t catch it. Or a horse might over-exert himself in a race that might have been one too many (running too many races in too short a time).
“The point I’m trying to make is that there’s bleeding that affects performance, and there’s bleeding that really isn’t anything to worry about. The Americans like to claim that grade-three-or-higher episodes, with blood spurting out of the nose, would be an epidemic without Lasix. This is nonsense if you're conditioning and keeping your horses in proper conditions.
“Chad Brown says that plenty of horses sent to the U.S. from France are bleeders. Fair enough. If European trainers have a horse with some talent that does have a bleeding problem, the first thing they’ll try to do is sell it to America. So yes, proportionally, maybe he’s had horses from France that bleed. That’s why we got rid of them.
“Keep in mind that I have never trained many horses at a time. In 20 years of training, I might have had between 150 and 200 horses pass through my hands. Of that number, I’ve had to retire two who were bleeders to the point where it didn’t make sense to try to treat the problem.
“One was a 3-year-old gelding that probably bled because of a respiratory infection that could have been treated and we could have raced him again. But because he really wasn’t that talented, I just sold him on as a riding horse. The second was a 5-year-old gelding who had a history of bleeding much earlier with another trainer. After winning a few races with him, he bled for me, and we retired him. So percentage wise, that’s one percent. That’s probably about what the percentage is in Europe of horses who really have significant bleeding problems that shouldn’t race, or breed.
“I have had horses that have scoped with very minor bleeding over the years. Those were managed with a treatment of whatever respiratory problem they might have been having, sometimes using a nebulizer with curcumin and essential oils - I absolutely hate doing this treatment, so I don’t do it very often - and backing off intense training for a short period.
“All of those horses have raced and won after a scope like this. I have never withheld water or feed before racing. As a matter of fact, my horses have access to water up until an hour before the race.”
Dr Thibault Vila, Clinique Vétérinaire Equine de Chantilly
“It’s true that, as in the States, we have a number of racehorses in France that are bleeders, and Lasix use is quite common for medical assistance to training here.
“That’s not really surprising when the lungs of horses are built to gallop no more than 200-300 metres at a time. So, with training gallops way beyond this distance and minimum races starting at 1,000 metres, we are regularly pushing them beyond their limits,
“A well-planned training programme therefore is essential to allow racehorses to develop in a non-stressful manner the stamina necessary to gallop over longer distances.
“My clients include five or six big trainers in Chantilly, and a large part of my job is dealing with horses that perform badly on the track and on the training gallops. Some 40-80 percent of racehorses need some sort of treatment for blood problems after training, which can vary from grade one to grade four. It’s a question of the level of severity of bleeding and regulating the situation over a period of time, which could also be related to the quality of racehorse a trainer has.
“The most important decision to take concerning respiratory problems, in my opinion, is to help the horse to be in better condition and Lasix use is a good idea - as long as it is related to a medical problem, well managed and not used every day.
“Other factors that come into play with a bleeding issue, (grade three or over) are the age of the horse and the distance it runs, whether it’s the first occasion and if the horse has other issues. Lasix, though, is not a treatment to use on racehorses who do not have a medical bleeder’s condition in the first place. If the horse’s condition is too bad, then we would advise the trainer and owner to cease training and try to find another less active life for the horse.
“The first reason for a bad performance on the track is related to the lungs. If there is less blood in the lungs, the horse will have a better respiratory performance for sure. For racehorses with blood issues, we try to limit the level of bleeding in training with treatment and also prevent possible future lung damage.
“The training treatment will still help the horse bleed less when running, even though race-day medication is not allowed in France.
“In France we have to adapt to the regulations, which means Lasix is banned for race-day use and cannot be administered four days prior to any race. When used in training, I think there is no scientific proof of any side effects from Lasix. So it’s a good way of protection when given in the correct dosage. But I can understand the cause for concern in not copying the United State for race-day intravenous injections of Lasix as it’s at the very limit of doping.
“Race-day Lasix can improve the track form of a racehorse who is a bleeder as it will certainly mean a better respiratory performance in a race for sure. For a horse who has no bleeding problem at all, it will not make any difference.
“A worrying concern for racehorse welfare is the fall in the level of scoping during the past ten years in my practice, with smaller to middle owners trying to cut down on spiralling costs.”
Henri-Alex Pantall, French trainer
Pantall was the trainer of subsequent U.S. turf champion Sistercharlie during her 2- and 3-year-old career in France. She was under the care of Chad Brown when she later won seven G1s in North America. In her last race for Pantall, she was an unlucky second to Senga in the 2017 Prix de Diane at Chantilly. Pantall said, “Sistercharlie was never a bleeder when I trained her and obviously ran Lasix-free in France, where it is banned for race-day use.”
André Fabre, French trainer
The current world #6, who trained dual Arc runner-up and subsequent North American turf champion Flintshire during his career in France, is well known for his strong views on Lasix.
Flintshire won two G1s and a G2 under the care of Brown, running each time on Lasix. Yet Fabre had been successful with the horse for three years, and sent him out to win the 2015 G1 Sword Dancer Stakes at Saratoga Lasix-free.
“I don’t know why Flintshire ran on Lasix with Chad Brown as he would have had exactly the same form without it,” said Fabre. “I never use anything like that for training, and, if any of my horses have occasional blood issues, injuries or catch a virus, I always ensure they receive the necessary rest time to fully recover before bringing them gradually back into training.”