To Bleed or Not to Bleed? : That Is the Question Racing Faces

Times Staff Writer

Medication rules in horse racing are so inconsistent from state to state that Alysheba, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness while being treated with Lasix, may not be able to use that controversial bleeding deterrent if he runs in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, racing’s richest race, in November.

Although the $3-million Breeders’ Cup Classic is being run Nov. 21 at Hollywood Park, in the state where Alysheba first bled and thereby qualified for Lasix treatment here and in other states, a California state veterinarians’ policy could prevent the 3-year-old colt from using the diuretic.

If that occurs, Alysheba’s owners, as well as bettors who will risk hundreds of thousands of dollars on the horse’s performance, will be faced with the question of whether medication is a factor. The Clarence Scharbauers of Midland, Tex., who own Alysheba, have millions of dollars at stake in the Breeders’ Cup Classic--the $1.35-million first-place purse and the substantial increase in breeding fees that a victory would bring.


Because a post-race examination showed that Alysheba probably had bled internally during a race at Santa Anita in March, he was allowed to run with Lasix when he finished second in the San Felipe Handicap at the same track four weeks later.

A bleeder in California is also recognized as a bleeder in Kentucky and Maryland, so Alysheba ran with Lasix for his victories in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and the Preakness at Pimlico.

Alysheba will also run with Lasix in the $500,000 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park Aug. 1, although there are some curious interpretations by New Jersey racing officials that are making this possible.

When Alysheba made his unsuccessful bid for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes--he finished fourth, more than 14 lengths behind the victorious Bet Twice--the colt raced without Lasix because New York rules prohibit horses from running with any medication.

After the Haskell, Alysheba’s next scheduled appearance is another New York race, the $1-million Travers Stakes at Saratoga Aug. 22.

According to Don Dooley, a state veterinarian at Hollywood Park, a horse certified as a bleeder in California loses his Lasix privileges if he runs two races without the medication outside the state and then returns.

“It’s standard policy here that if a horse runs more than once without Lasix elsewhere and establishes his form, we assume that he doesn’t need the medication,” Dooley said. “In these cases, a horse would have to reapply and show cause before he could run again with Lasix in California.”

Jack Van Berg, who trains Alysheba, said before the Belmont that Lasix would not be a factor in his horse’s performance. Alysheba was examined after the Belmont and found not to have bled, with Van Berg saying that the absence of Lasix had nothing to do with the defeat.

Van Berg has never considered Alysheba a bleeder in the true sense. There were only signs of bleeding after the first Santa Anita race and the colt’s condition was complicated by a breathing problem, which was corrected by surgery a couple of days after the San Felipe.

It has been frequently written that Lasix improves a horse’s performance, which is an oversimplification.

“If a horse has bled, all Lasix does is enable him to run up to his normal capability,” Dooley said. “It won’t make him run any faster.”

Many horses bleed internally--80% to 85% by some studies--but Dooley says that equine medicine has been unable to develop a satisfactory remedy.

“The drugs that are used have side effects,” Dooley said. “One drug that would help is also a stimulant, so that’s not practical. I even have questions about Lasix. By its pharmacology, it shouldn’t help. And Lasix over the long haul could be harmful. People that use it (sometimes for heart conditions) get sick after a while. It makes you release a tremendous amount of fluid, and eventually has negative effects.”

Lasix is manufactured by a company in Somerville, N.J., not far from Monmouth Park, where Alysheba and Bet Twice, who was second in both the Derby and the Preakness, will resume their rivalry. A third contender in the Haskell will be Lost Code, who has won seven straight races since first being treated with Lasix. Lost Code’s handlers have indicated that he won’t run in New York because of the no-Lasix rule.

“I’m not a big fan of Lasix,” said Jimmy Croll, who trains Bet Twice. “I suppose that if a horse needs it, it’s a good product. But I’m not of the opinion that Alysheba needs it.”

New York is the only major racing state that bans Lasix. New Jersey allows Lasix, but is considered one of the strictest states regarding its use.

A few years ago, New Jersey dropped its reciprocity agreement with California regarding medication when California changed its Lasix policy. Previously, it had been necessary that a state veterinarian approve a bleeder for Lasix. Now in California, the approval of two private vets is enough to get a horse on the Lasix list.

How, then, can Alysheba race on Lasix in the Haskell? The only state in which he has bled has been California, and there’s no reciprocity.

“The horse raced on Lasix in Maryland,” said Bruce Garland, director of the New Jersey Racing Commission. “And we have reciprocity with Maryland.”

But in another technicality, Alysheba wouldn’t be able to run again on Lasix in Maryland without requalifying as a bleeder. The Maryland rule, stricter than California’s, says that a Lasix horse can’t come back to the state and run with the medication if he’s raced just once without the drug elsewhere. Alysheba has done that, in the Belmont Stakes.

So how can Alysheba run on Lasix in New Jersey, based on a Maryland rule that says he now can’t use Lasix?

Garland was vague about that. “What happens in New York doesn’t mean anything to us, because that’s not a medication state,” he said.

It has sometimes taken lawyers and courts to sort out racing’s medication rules. The result of the 1968 Kentucky Derby took more than three years to resolve because the first-place finisher, Dancer’s Image, raced with an illegal painkiller in his system and was disqualified. The courts finally gave the win to Forward Pass, who had finished second. The same painkiller was legalized in Kentucky soon after the 1968 Derby and is now legal in most states.

Before the 1983 Preakness, the owners of Desert Wine wanted to race on Lasix, but Maryland officials balked because the colt hadn’t been observed bleeding after a race by a California state veterinarian. In Baltimore the day before the Preakness, a Circuit Court judge, an asthmatic who had windpipe problems of his own, ruled in favor of Desert Wine and the Maryland rule was soon changed.

Moving a horse to another state presents an added problem for trainers because of the conflicting medication rules.

Says Joe Manzi at Hollywood Park: “When I’m going out of town with a horse, one of the first things I do is call the other state and check to see what the medication rules are.”

Trainer Wayne Lukas ran Fast Forward in a stake at Arlington Park in suburban Chicago this summer and the colt bled and finished out of the money as the heavy favorite.

Lukas, who is based in California with divisions in other states, had run Fast Forward on Lasix elsewhere, but didn’t use the medication at Arlington because he mistakenly believed that a horse had to bleed in Illinois before he could be treated.

It is unlikely that racing states will ever agree on medication. The National Assn. of State Racing Commissioners currently has a policy against Lasix, even though most of its individual members permit the medication. That policy is expected to change, since recent studies have indicated that Lasix does not hide the presence of more potent drugs in postrace tests.

New York, in allowing no medication for racing, greatly differs from the other major racing jurisdictions. California trainers, who doubt that their New York counterparts could survive without some of the same pharmaceutical help that their horses require, scoff at the regulations.

“New York thinks it has the best medication rules,” said Eddie Gregson, who trained Gato Del Sol, winner of the 1982 Kentucky Derby. “What they have are the worst rules.”

Instead of fighting New York, Joe Hickey, a former racing commissioner in Maryland, tried to get his state to copy New York’s no-medication rule for its two most important races, the Preakness and the Washington, D.C., International.

Hickey not only failed in that, but also lost his job as a commissioner. His term wasn’t extended by Gov. William D. Schaefer. Hickey says that Frank De Francis, the principal owner of Pimlico and Laurel Race Course, asked the governor to have him removed.

“It’s scary to think about the ends people will go to on this medication issue,” Hickey said. “De Francis felt that my proposal would hurt the quality of the fields for his big races.”

De Francis said: “It’s sour grapes. The governor has a right to appoint whoever he wants to the state commissions and he’s flatly denied what Mr. Hickey has said. What the governor has said is in direct contradiction with what Mr. Hickey has been saying.”

Hickey and Rosemary Ferraro, chairman of the medication committee for the California Horse Racing Board, believe that Lasix is abused by trainers. Ferraro has a son who is a trainer.

“The pendulum has swung too far the other way,” Hickey said. “The rationale now is that Lasix is there, we might as well use it. This is an issue that is more critical than anything I can think of. It’s an issue that goes right to the heart of the integrity of the game.”

Van Berg would like to see medication rules the same everywhere, with several regional laboratories that would ensure consistency in post-race testing.

Not likely, said Dooley. “Getting all the states to agree about medication is asking for the moon,” he said. “It’s daydreaming.”