Lasix use remains a stain on racing's character
Horse-racing has a real credibility issue in its disingenuous attitude to drugs, says John O'Brien
Imagine it is the year 2017 and, amid a storm of protest, the International Olympic Committee has decided to award the 2024 Olympic Games to a certain cash-rich Middle Eastern nation which does not subscribe to the WADA anti-doping code and where certain performance-enhancing substances, illegal elsewhere, are permitted in and out of competition. For the duration of the Games all participating athletes will be free to use those substances to their hearts' content.
In the teeth of strenuous opposition, the organisers offer a fig leaf which they hope will placate sponsors and fans alike. On the various competition entry lists, an asterisk will be placed next to those athletes who, quite legally, opt to take drugs to boost their medal-winning prospects, thus allowing spectators, not to mention those wishing to have a bet, the capacity to distinguish between users and non-users.
It's a far-fetched scenario, of course, as close to preposterous as makes no odds. For all the charges of duplicity we sometimes fire its way, there's more chance of Usain Bolt having to sweat to retain his Olympic 100m title in Rio in 2016 than the IOC treading such a morally decadent path. In fact, it's almost impossible to think where such a situation might pertain until you enter the moral maze that is international thoroughbred racing.
To any rational mind or to those who love racing, though not at the expense of a horse's welfare, the permitted use of race-day medications like the anti-bleeding drug, Lasix, represents a stain on the sport that needs to be wiped away in the interests of credibility. The idea that racing is somehow above other sports or should, for some inherent reason, follow a different moral code is disingenuous and outdated.
No doubt many in America, where the use of Lasix on race day is both rampant and permitted, and for whom such a message might be specifically targeted, would simply cast their heads skywards and scoff. And could you blame them for contemplating the doping scandals that have shaken British racing this year and politely inviting others to get their own houses in order before casting aspersions on others?
They would probably also dispute the unflattering comparison with sports that are signatories to the WADA code. The view so often put forward in defence of Lasix is that, whatever else the drug does, it does nothing to enhance a horse's performance. It is, runs the argument of the trainers and horsemen most anxious to keep Lasix off the banned lists, an issue of medication, never one of deliberate doping.
To which there can only ever be one reasonable answer. Who are these people kidding? While precise figures are hard to obtain, it is believed around five per cent of the total racehorse population in America will suffer bleeding problems and well-known that up to 95 per cent are given treatment for it. There are two possible explanations for this: trainers use Lasix as a preventative measure and they sense they are competing at a disadvantage if they let their horses race without it.
We shouldn't get too fixated, however, on the medical benefits of the drug or even its performance-enhancing properties. Lasix is a diuretic and, like any drug of its class, it promotes less water re-absorption in the body and leads to significant weight loss. More significantly, Lasix – also known as furosemide – is hugely popular among athletes because it helps flush fluids quickly from the body and acts as an effective masking agent for other substances.
According to WADA figures, close to seven per cent of all adverse analytical findings worldwide involve the use of masking agents such as diuretics of which just less than one-third concern furosemide. The latest high-profile case occurred in June when it was announced that Jamaican sprinter Veronica Campbell-Brown had tested positive for
the drug at a meet the previous month. The two-time Olympic gold medallist protests her innocence but is expected to serve a ban when her disciplinary hearing concludes.
Why racing in any jurisdiction should see itself in a different light is perplexing. It is two weeks now since those who run the self-styled World Championship of racing called the Breeders' Cup rowed back on a commitment to ban Lasix and announced that even the prohibition concerning the juvenile races would be lifted next year. If the price to pay was a further stain on the already-damaged image of American racing worldwide, then it is one the powerful trainers' and horsemen's lobby considered worth paying.
In truth, we can tut-tut all we like about US racing's dependence on drugs, but it's hard to imagine they'd care much for what we think anyway. But imagine the scenario. You are shipping a horse to compete in a region where a drug that is known not just to enhance performance but can be used to hide more powerful substances is perfectly legal on race day and the ethical dilemma confronts you: to use or not to use.
For guidance, you just need to ask two simple questions. What would we say about an athlete in the same situation choosing to avail of the opportunity to use the drug and why should we regard horse-racing in a different light?