The Use of Lasix Will Be Generating More Than a Summer Squall
Two weeks before the Preakness, the results of a scientific study of Lasix had been made public and touched off controversy throughout the racing industry. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania concluded that the drug doesn’t prevent horses from bleeding, but that it does make them run faster. So with Summer Squall’s impressive, Lasix-aided victory Saturday at Pimlico, it seems inevitable that he will be a focal point of the raging debate over this medication.
And both sides may point to Summer Squall as a vindication of their positions.
Summer Squall has a serious bleeding problem. He gushed blood from his nostrils after a workout in Florida this winter, and ever since that incident he has been given Lasix before races and hard workouts. On a few occasions, blood has trickled from his nostrils after routine morning gallops when he wasn’t treated with the diuretic.
When this happened the day before the Preakness, many witnesses were alarmed, but trainer Neil Howard assured them:
“The Lasix will hold the bleeding.”
And it did. Without the medication, Summer Squall would have been at such risk in the Preakness that Howard wouldn’t have let him run. With Lasix, he was able to finish powerfully and defeat Unbridled (another Lasix user) by 2 1/4 lengths.
In the view of Howard and owner Cot Campbell, as well as the vast majority of trainers, owners and veterinarians in America, Summer Squall demonstrates why it would be senseless to ban the use of Lasix. This extraordinarily talented horse suffers from one specific physical problem, and there exists a medication that can remedy that problem.
Why deny the horse this help, deny racing the presence of a top attraction, deny the owners who put so much money into this game the chance to make a profit?
Moreover, Summer Squall’s record casts plenty of doubts on the University of Pennsylvania study. That study said Lasix had “questionable efficacy” for the prevention of bleeding. But even if the medication is not foolproof, virtually all practicing vets say it is generally effective. What better evidence could there be than Summer Squall? On Friday, without Lasix, he couldn’t even gallop without bleeding; on Saturday, with Lasix, he could win the second-fastest Preakness in history with no ill effects.
Campbell reaffirmed after the Preakness that Summer Squall would not run in the Belmont Stakes, since Lasix is not permitted in New York state. The little colt needs a rest, he said. He would return to competition this fall, the main objective to be the Breeders’ Cup -- at Belmont Park. And that decision seems to expose the hollowness of the arguments of the pro-Lasix forces.
Campbell and Howard feel that Summer Squall will be able to run effectively without medication if he is given a sufficient period of rest this summer. Indeed, rest has been the traditional prescription for horses who bleed in all the other countries of the world where medication is not permitted, and in the United States before Lasix was legalized in the early 1970s.
If that is the case, why wasn’t Summer Squall given a long period of recuperation after he bled in Florida? Why aren’t run-of-the-mill horses given rest instead of injections when they bleed? The answer, of course, is simple. Money. Most owners of thoroughbreds lose money anyway, and it is an expensive proposition to put a horse on the shelf for months when he will generate a pile of expenses but no income. How many of the anti-Lasix moralists, had they been members of the 28-man syndicate that owns Summer Squall, would have pleaded with Campbell, the syndicate manager: “Forget about the Kentucky Derby. Forget about the Preakness. Give this horse a rest.”
A more persuasive argument against Lasix -- and the more persuasive part of the University of Pennsylvania study -- is that it improves the performance of horses, even those who don’t suffer from bleeding. Lasix is therefore being widely used -- and abused -- by trainers whose horses don’t really need it. Did six of the nine Preakness starters really need Lasix? Was it for purely therapeutic reasons that 57 of the 84 horses who ran on the Pimlico program Saturday were treated with Lasix? These percentages exceed the most liberal estimates of the number of horses who suffer from pulmonary hemorrhage, and contribute to the almost universal belief among racing fans that Lasix is being abused.
The Lasix dilemma is a difficult one for the thoroughbred industry because there are such strong arguments on each side of it. It is likely to remain a divisive issue for a long time, because each side seems immovable in its convictions. This is an issue about which nobody is neutral.
In the end, though, it may not be the pros and cons of Lasix but public opinion that ultimately settles the argument. The Preakness may turn out to be one of the events that hardens that opinion. What did the average member of the television audience think of this sport when he heard that Summer Squall would skip the climactic event on the Triple Crown because he wouldn’t be allowed to race with the aid of a drug?
I asked Campbell after the Preakness what he thought the public’s perception of this issue would be, and whether it might be injurious to the sport’s image. He said: “I’m all for Lasix. As far as the public struggling with this problem, they’ll have to struggle with it. I’m just elated about winning the Preakness.”
Whatever the merits of Lasix, the racing industry cannot afford to take such a cavalier attitude toward the public perception that we are drugging horses so that they will be able to run.