Lasix ruling only a small step forward
Amid all the hand wringing about performance-enhancing drugs in sports, from accusations against Roger Clemens, to Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong and the headlines they generate seemingly daily, there remains one sport where athletes are routinely drugged on the day of competition. And there's no great public outcry against it.
You can't call it horse racing's dirty little secret, because there is no secret to what goes on at the track. Racehorses are shot up with Lasix, a drug that prevents bleeding in the lungs, but also aids performance by causing horses to urinate enough to actually lose weight, and thus gain speed. It's perfectly legal, too.
But that doesn't make it right.
Which is why Thursday's announcement by the Breeders' Cup to phase in a ban on Lasix on race day is perhaps the beginning of a turning point for the sport in this country. The ban will begin in 2012, but will affect only 2-year-olds. All use of Lasix will be prohibited by 2013. It already is banned internationally, the impetus for the move by the Breeders' Cup.
"Given the high level of international participation in our championships and the increasing support for our nominations programs throughout the global thoroughbred breeding and racing community, Breeders' Cup feels strongly that the time has come to modify our medication policies to be consistent with international practices,'' Breeders' Cup chairman Tom Ludt said in making the announcement.
But if this is a step in the direction of humane treatment of racehorses, it is a baby step at best. The Breeders' Cup is a two-day event. The rest of the year, at racetracks all over the country, Lasix will still be used. And that includes the track that hosts both the Breeders' Cup and the Kentucky Derby: Churchill Downs. As per the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission rules, Lasix is still allowed on race day at the Derby.
Fans surely know that enhancing the performance of racehorses comes at a cost beyond the integrity of the sport. As The New York Times points out in a Friday article about the Breeders' Cup, some blame the use of Lasix for a higher rate of deaths among racehorses in the U.S. compared to Europe. A study released in 2010 by The Jockey Club showed that there were 2.04 deaths per 1,000 starts among racehorses in North America. The fatality rate is roughly half that in England.
It's perhaps no coincidence that betting on horse racing has dropped 22.5 percent, down from $14.7 to $11.4 million from 2007 to 2010, according to the Times. If you can connect the dots between racehorse deaths and a drop in wagering, then the move by the Breeders' Cup makes sense. When fans and gamblers are turned off by a sport seen as cruel, it's good business to try to make racing safer.
But no matter what they do now, they've already lost some of us for good.
We know there can be no real humanity in a sport that needs a financial incentive to be humane.