Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I say Lasix, you say Salix; oh, and I say 'Use it or don't'

I've neglected commenting much about this sport for the past few months, restricting my blog posts to reports of the successes (mostly) of my 2-year-old sales selections from 2010. But news that the American Graded Stakes Committee will ban the use of Salix in graded races for 2-year-olds next year prompts me to react.

When it comes to Salix -- still known pretty much everywhere as Lasix, and scientifically known as furosemide -- make a choice, America. Use it or don't.

OK, I understand that sometimes progress takes baby steps. (More about that later.) But weaning the U.S. racing thoroughbred population off Salix (which is used almost nowhere else) a handful of horses at a time, that is, only 2-year-olds in graded stakes, is like a toddler taking his first step on a walk from New York to Los Angeles. Maybe he'll get there before he's old enough to vote.

I'm not entirely convinced (maybe not at all convinced) that Salix itself is definitively detrimental to the breed. Some people believe it makes the horses brittle, or cuts down on their number of starts per year and lifetime (which indeed are declining), but there isn't much conclusive science on those fronts. The evidence is anecdotal and the conclusions mostly speculative.

On the other hand -- and this isn't fence-riding on my part -- I am a proponent of American horses competing without any race-day medications. I can make that statement despite having also made the prior statement because trainers and jurisdictions everywhere in the world have shown horse racing can take place (at a very high level) without race-day use of medications, particularly in this case Salix. Thus, I don't really need science to tell me Salix is "bad," because I already know the drug isn't absolutely necessary for horses and horse racing to survive, even thrive.

Meanwhile, science does suggest that EIPH -- that's exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, or "bleeding" -- is inherited in horses. So it is best that we breed with the horses least likely to be carrying this trait, and by running them without Salix, we'll know horses perform better without pharmaceuticals masking an inherited flaw. (Although as Sid Fernando explored in this recent blog post and his story in North American Trainer magazine, what do you do when those who don't bleed as runners, sire those that do?)

Though the debate over Salix has brewed for awhile and has reached a boiling point, the problem of EIPH in thoroughbreds is hardly new. In the United States, the highest honor for a racehorse is to win an Eclipse Award. That honor is named for the undefeated Eclipse (1764), a horse to whom some 80 percent of all modern thoroughbreds can trace its lineage -- and a great-grandson of Bartlett's Childers, a horse whose original nickname was "Bleeding Childers."

Breeding was one of the chief reasons cited by the AGSC for its decision to ban Salix.

"We view this as a positive step for the elite-level horses that will race in graded stakes, the ones most likely to perpetuate the breed," said Dr. J. David Richardson, chairman of the AGSC.

Which would be well and good if only 1 or 2 percent of all fillies retired to be broodmares, or if the propensity to pass along the EIPH trait is entirely the responsibility of the sire, not the dam. (I don't know the answer to that; if someone does, tell me.)

Then there is the question of how a handicapper should handle next year's biggest 2-year-old races. Once again, the racing industry takes action without considering (or at least without acknowledging that it has considered) the plight of the sport's most ardent fans -- those willing to wager on these races.

Last year, there were 6,410 2-year-old races in the U.S. and Canada. Of those, just 49 were graded-stakes events. There were 14,976 2-year-old starters in the United States and Canada, who made a combined 59,998 starts. A virtually imperceptible fraction of those were in graded-stakes.

Unless all U.S. jurisdictions follow the lead of the AGSC (which is, admittedly, trying to be a leader), next season's juveniles it seems could break their maidens on Salix, collect allowance victories and ungraded stakes wins on Salix, then suddenly be entered against one another in a race where that race-day medication is banned.

What will those past-performances you purchased be worth?

If running without race-day medication is worthwhile in the United States and Canada -- and I think that it is -- then let's just pick a date and start doing it. Granted, it might make sense to break that ground with a shovel and not with a backhoe, thus doing so with a class of 2-year-olds (i.e., not withdrawing all horses in competition, tomorrow) is the best way. But make that an entire class of 2-year-olds; get them all started off on drug-free careers together, and consider "grandfathering" those older horses running on Salix, which is just about everybody these days, so that a horse doesn't have to be withdrawn from something to which his system has become accustomed.

Within just a few seasons, it will be the horses who are listed as running on Lasix in the Racing Form who are in the distinct minority, not the other way around.

And, like most things in horse racing, it is the trainers and breeders who will need to adjust their ways; not the animals.


  1. Here here. I'm in the "pick a date" camp, but I don't have any stock, so that's not going to cost me anything.

    The "non-bleeding runner as bleeder sire" is interesting, but considering the vagaries of the stallion business, isn't compelling. Fast horses can't replicate their speed in their get, isn't that just another risk? I don't have the data, but if the theory that "Euro bleeders get dumped on the States" is true, then perhaps there's some pattern in Euro bleeding produce getting sold here as well? Dunno if there's a large enough sample.

    As to the handicapping argument, that's even less compelling. I'm not much of a handicapper, but even I know first time Lasix is a signal worth watching for. Also, at least at the higher levels, horses ship in from overseas. Does it make things marginally harder, probably, but considering the bettors aren't working against the house, does it matter?

    What are your thoughts on the argument that high class horses can race without it, while campaigning claimers, the vast majority, need the help? It's not convincing, but I have no skin in the game, so my opinion isn't fully informed.

    Keep up the good work Glenn, and glad to see the class is past 50%.


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