LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - 2020 marks the last time horses will be allowed to race in the Kentucky Derby while medicated with furosemide, the drug commonly known as Lasix.
The medication prevents respiratory bleeding that can occur in some horses. But it also has side-effects that critics say make it a performance-enhancing drug.
“Do 99 or 90 percent of the horses need it? I don’t think so no,” trainer Kenny McPeek said. “It’s become part of the routine. Horsemen feel like they need it to stay competitive.”
McPeek supports Churchill Downs and other tracks now banning doses of Lasix in stakes races for 2-year-olds. Next year, the ban extends to 3-year-olds and races including the Kentucky Derby. The ban only applies on days when the horse is racing because Furosemide is also a powerful diuretic. Minutes after getting the drug, the horse has to urinate, sometimes losing more than 20 pounds in the process. Trainers, however, sharply disagree on calling Furosemide a performance-enhancing drug.
“I think that the fact you drop water weight, the less a horse weighs theoretically the faster it should be able to run,” McPeek said. “Would that be performance-enhancing? Yes, probably.”
“It will not make a horse run faster than it is capable of running,” trainer Dale Romans said. “Losing the water weight is what makes it work. And it makes it where they don’t hemorrhage in their lungs. And that’s a proven fact of a problem we have in horse racing.”
In 2019, it was estimated that 95% or more of all the horses running on American tracks were medicated with Furosemide. Romans is opposed to prohibiting its use on days the horse is racing.
“I have never seen a case where I could say that Lasix made a horse hurt,” Romans said. “I don’t understand how anybody can connect the two dots.”
Romans believes the ban is being imposed as a way for the sport to avoid negative perceptions. Backlash over a recent spike in fatal injuries to thoroughbreds led to the formation of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, comprised of the biggest tracks in the US. Industry leaders, including Churchill Downs and Keeneland, agreed to a series of reforms including a phase-out of Lasix.
Horses that are racing drug-free is expected to be a crowd-pleaser as the sport attempts to cultivate a new generation of fans. The question is, will those fans notice a difference next year when the race day ban on Furosemide goes into effect for all races in the Triple Crown?
“I don’t think you’ll see anything different whatsoever,” McPeek said. “You’ll see they run just as straight and narrow as they ever did.”