The Rail: Essay: Medication Continues to Stifle America’s Triple Crown Hopes

It is no coincidence that there has not been a Triple Crown winner since the administration of raceday Lasix became the standard for Kentucky Derby runners some 35 or so years ago. An understanding and appreciation of the veterinary science of equine behavior are necessary to elucidate how raceday Lasix impoverishes the medical welfare of racehorses, and why permissive raceday and day-before medication should be banned in American horseracing to protect the heath and welfare of the racehorses and the sport.

The data from non-Lasix, non-raceday medication jurisdictions indicates clean-running horses sustain significantly fewer breakdowns than horses running on Lasix in America. All the while, the overseas horses experience longer, more racing-durable careers. Frankel and Black Caviar are poster horses for raceday-medication-free durability.

Over the last few years in the United States and Canada, we have watched two raceday-medicated horses break down for every 1000 starts. Meanwhile, the overseas jurisdictions that do not allow raceday injections of performance-enhancing drugs experience less than one breakdown for every 2000 starts while reporting no overwhelming or significant problems with bleeding. Jurisdictions who do not allow horses to be injected with drugs hours and days before they race have clearly demonstrated that restricted-medication racing is safer than medicated racing.

In the Untied States and Canada, there has been no significant improvement in racing safety in the last two years, according to Jockey Club breakdown data. Horses continue to break down at an unacceptable rate in American Lasix jurisdictions; two horses for every 1,000 starts. Many more are injured or sustain career-ending infirmities. Few in positions of authority have stepped forward to curb the permissive untoward pharmaceutical scrims that in large part contribute to these fatalities. Racing regulators and safety directors continue to pander to the pharmaceutically inclined horsemen who cannot find it in themselves to race horses without injecting them before they race. Racing was designed to be a fair game, and fairness and fair play will only be restored when the current pre-race medication practices are by and large rescinded.

It has become clear that the Lasix experiment has led to racehorse fragility and shortened careers, as well as deprived American racing its long sought after Triple Crown champion. It appears no horse can withstand the rigors of racing on potent medications while attempting to win the three Classics in a five-week span. Drugs have not and are not going to facilitate such a feat. Rather than alleviate medical conditions, permissive racing medications have exceeded racehorse adaptability and perpetuated fragility of wind and limb.

Orb appeared to be short-stepping behind in the Preakness post parade, reflective of the cramping Lasix can cause when re-administered after two weeks rest. Orb had every chance in the Belmont, but it seems the potent and lasting diuretic toll of three pre-race Lasix treatments in a five-week period was just too much for any horse to prevail at a mile and a half. Palace Malice had five weeks’ rest between Lasix treatments, presumably allowing him to hold on for the classic win. Incognito, who finished fourth, was the only Belmont participant not to run on Lasix.

To embrace the principles of equine behavior and metabolic conditioning is to understand what is required to maintain pulmonary health in horses confined to stalls being conditioned to race. The appropriate medical solutions to managing exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage are appropriate endurance breeding, development, horsemanship, training and husbandry. The care that establishes and enhances pulmonary health and longevity in horses is the same care that enriches stabled horses’ lives and keeps them sound of limb. It is the humane care that keeps racehorses’ musculoskeletal systems sound. It is the supplemental conditioning that keeps horses on their feet during races.

Horses with healthy lungs are content and fulfilled horses whose lives their caretakers adequately if not extensively enrich with abundant locomotion. Lung health is supported by limb health. Stalled competition horses require miles of daily walking to maintain and develop racing soundness of wind and limb. Breathing and running are biologically intertwined on the track, a breath per stride. To stride correctly is to breathe correctly. To breathe correctly is to breathe soundly, and race sound. Pulmonary conditioning of racehorses requires proactive husbandry and locomotion management, not injectable raceday drugs.

Horses who are bred, socialized and developed properly from birth, and who train while living enriched stable lives are seldom likely to experience performance-impairing E.I.P.H. while racing as has been demonstrated in Europe, Asia and Australia. Horses in the raceday-medication-free jurisdictions are more apt to stay sound, to have extended careers, and, yes, to win a Triple Crown or retire undefeated after an extensive career of Classic wins.

No horse has managed to weather the side effects of Lasix to achieve what has not been achieved since Lasix use became nearly universal in Classic runners. Humane care of the horse prevents bleeding, not raceday medications. Bleeding in a race is reflective of inadequate care and preparation, of miscalculations and untoward medication practices. Lasix perpetuates this substandard horsemanship and at great cost to the horses, artificially suppressing the untoward result (bleeding) of inadequate preparation of the thoroughbred.

Drugs are not the solution. Competent horsemanship is the solution. Not only do properly stabled and trained horses’ lungs hold bleeding in abeyance, they hold sway to stay sound and win, and win again, and again. Pulmonary health and bleeding prevention are dependent on proper pulmonary development, which enhances smooth running and biomechanically sound locomotion.

Before a Triple Crown winner graces America’s racetracks again, horse racing must come clean of drugs and replace its raceday medication mind-set with appropriate horse-sensitive breeding, pulmonary development, horsemanship, behavior, training and husbandry.

Here’s to Incognito and his team for racing a Lasix-free Belmont and showing America the path to an eventual Triple Crown.


Sid Gustafson, D.V.M., is a novelist and equine veterinarian specializing in thoroughbred sports medicine and equine behavior. He currently practices regulatory veterinary medicine, representing the safety and welfare of thoroughbred racehorses.

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