The Kentucky Derby Must Kick Its Drug Problem

The Kentucky Derby Must Kick Its Drug Problem

Around 6:24 pm eastern time Saturday evening, 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 three-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.

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 anti-ulcer medications, or even Advil-like anti-inflammatory drugs. But the United States 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 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 pounds; 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 United States join the rest of the racing world, and end 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.”

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 purpose of thoroughbred breeding is to produce the strongest, fastest horse as 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 America’s top breeding farms. Collins has conducted racing business in 22 countries. “And it’s because there’s a perception that American race horses are on drugs.”

Lasix defenders, particularly horse trainers, say it’s not that simple. They point to furosemide’s therapeutic effects. . 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 — or bleeding from the lungs — in horses. It was intended to help the horses known as “bleeders.” 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, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, points out that over half of 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 1/2 a grade, on a 0-4 scale.

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 as 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 hemorrhage 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 nose-bleeding 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 Great Britain. “The notion of some kind of American exceptionalism when it comes to giving horses drugs makes no sense.”

Fortunately, there’s momentum to erase racing’s Lasix problem. Just this week, on May 4, a pair of congressmen — Rep. Edward Whitfield, Republican of Kentucky, and Sen. Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico — introduced federal 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 re-write the rules, opposes race day drugs . The Breeders’ Cup is deveoping a plan to ban race-day meds. In June, a group 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.

Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Keeping Score, his sports column for, appears every Friday. Follow him on Twitter at @seanmgregory.

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