The Lasix Wars of 1990 are starting to get ugly.
Like gangs battling over philosophical turf, equine veterinarians and racing policy makers from British Columbia to Boca Raton have been lining up either for or against a University of Pennsylvania paper published last May that drew several damaging conclusions regarding the use of furosemide--a diuretic given to bleeders and known best by the trade name Lasix--in thoroughbred race horses.
California, Illinois, Florida, New Jersey, Maryland, Arkansas and Kentucky, among others, allow such medication on race days. New York does not.
The study, conducted by Drs. Lawrence Soma and Corinne Sweeney and printed in the American Journal of Veterinary Research, was funded by the Jockey Club, a New York oriented, quasi-official body that is concerned mainly with the identification and naming of thoroughbreds.
The primary finding of the study indicated that furosemide actually increased the speed of some horses who did not suffer from "exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage." In presenting the study, a Jockey Club spokesman concluded that Lasix had been proven to be a "performance enhancer."
In the three months since the study was published, a firestorm of reaction has raged through the industry. Practically every week there has been a new twist to the Lasix angle:
--Canadian racing officials postponed their long-awaited legalization of Lasix pending further study of bleeders.
--The New York State Racing and Wagering Board proposed a plan by which states could line up with New York's policy and phase out the use of Lasix over a period of several years.
--California Assemblyman Richard Floyd (D-Carson), with the backing of State Senator Ken Maddy (R-Fresno), introduced a bill that would allow only official state veterinarians to administer Lasix injections.
--The American Assn. of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), in a statement issued July 11, called the conclusions reached in the Pennsylvania study "inappropriate" and described the research as being conducted "under less than desireable conditions."
Then, just a few weeks ago, the Arizona Department of Racing released a bleeder study in which it was concluded that Lasix was not able to enhance the performance of a race horse.
"At best, Lasix can return some horses back to the level of competition they competed in when they bled," wrote David G. Rice, who conducted the Arizona study.
In the meantime, the betting public continues to be bounced around in the middle of the Lasix question. Since California began publishing Lasix information two years ago, the only real concern of the horseplayer boils down to that little L in the daily program beside the name of a particular horse, and whether or not it was there the last time it ran.
Jeff Siegel, a Southern California syndicated handicapper, perceives a great apathy among the fans regarding the Lasix squabble. He also discounts the presence of Lasix as an important handicapping influence.
"I would never like a horse simply because of Lasix," said Siegel. "It's been totally overblown as a handicapping factor (if) for no other reason than so many horses are on it."
Rick Arthur, a widely-known veterinarian on the Southern California circuit, is similarly distressed by the attention being paid the Pennsylvania study, especially as interpreted by the racing press. He pointed to articles putting furosemide on the same level as corticosteroids (cortisone) and barbiturates.
Arthur was on a committee of six AAEP members that analyzed the Pennsylvania study.
"Actually, they toned down what I had to say about it," Arthur said. "I would have been a lot harder on them."
Arthur decried the time and technology spent on the study, which, as far as he is concerned, asked all the wrong questions.
"It's a total misappropriation of resources," Arthur said. "Instead of arguing for the opinions held by a small minority of the Jockey Club, we should be looking for a pathological basis for the disease of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage."
Arthur noted that he had just returned from the International Conference on Equine Exercise Physiology in Stockholm, Sweden, where the furosemide paper was a hot topic of discussion.
"The conference is made up of nearly all research types, and not one of them could agree with the conclusions drawn by the Jockey Club study," Arthur said.
Soma continues to fend off criticism of his research, while explaining the findings to a never-ending round of panels and racing commissions.
"When we took on this project, I said to (Sweeney), 'No matter what we do, we're going to be in deep trouble.'
"I knew that if we found there was no change (in the speed of horses on Lasix), we would be criticized by the people who are against furosemide. And if we found there was a change, we'd get it from the other side."
Soma regretted that there has been what he considers an overreaction to the very narrow conclusions reached by the study.
"The No. 1 conclusion is this: Horses that are non-bleeders should not be running on Lasix," Soma said. "I know it sounds obvious, but we're talking about the whole area of qualifying as a bleeder, which can vary greatly from state to state.
"From my understanding, California is one of the more reasonable places in that regard," Soma added. "But there are places where a trainer can get a horse on a bleeder list with just a little pressure on his vet."
As far as the Arizona study is concerned, Soma is not impressed.
"Where has it been published?," he asked. "Who has reviewed the findings, other than the author? Our paper underwent the highest possible scrutiny.
"I can understand why we would be criticized by trainers," Soma concluded. "We've taken some real shots. I'm more surprised, though, by the reaction of our colleagues. I've drafted a response to the AAEP statement, pointing out where I felt they drew the wrong conclusions."
And in this corner, Rick Arthur can hardly wait.
"If he wants to do battle over this, that's fine with me," Arthur replied. "The welfare of racehorses is at stake."