Legal drugging of racehorses draws criticism

Horseman and 1983 Preakness winner
Horse trainer Bill Boniface with retired thoroughbred "Deputed Testamony," winner of the 1983 Preakness.

Twelve horses are entered in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, and it's a safe bet that every one will be injected with a performance-enhancing drug before the race.

It's legal. But is it right? On Monday, the thoroughbred industry will hold a summit to discuss banning race day medications. CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod spoke to some trainers who say that's long overdue.

A walk through the stables with Bill Boniface is nothing short of a stroll through horseracing history.

Boniface trained "Deputed Testamony," winner of the 1983 Preakness Stakes, part of the Triple Crown. Now 31, Testamony still lights up his trainer's eyes.

But Boniface is alarmed by what he sees in racing today -- the prevalence of a drug called Lasix.

"95 percent are racing on Lasix, but 95 percent don't need it," he said.

So why do 95 percent get it?

"Everybody wants to have the edge," Boniface said.

Lasix is a powerful diuretic, a legal drug that eliminates excess fluid. Thirty years ago it was relatively rare -- prescribed to the 1 in 10 horses that suffered from severe lung bleeding. But trainers noticed that horses lose 15 to 20 pounds of fluid on Lasix, making them lighter -- and faster.

Now Congress is considering whether to ban all race-day medications like Lasix. The U.S. and Canada are the only countries in the world that allow horses to run while medicated.

"We're a rogue nation in this regard, said Arthur Hancock, a legendary Kentucky horseman, says breeding horses that depend on performance enhancing drugs has damaged the genetic line.

"Generation after generation, they're going to get weaker and that's what's happened," he said.

Racing has taken significant steps, like eliminating steroids. There are New York state vets collecting blood and urine samples. The top three finishers in every race are checked for banned substances.

"We test to the parts per trillion," said Remi Bellocq, president of the Horsemen's Benevolent & Protectorate Association. "Our labs can find anything and everything in a horse."

Lasix defenders argue it's safe and effective. But Bill Boniface says too many horses that don't need it are getting it.

"He's the oldest living classic champion in North America and he never raced on any medication," Boniface says of Deputed Testamony. That the horse still holds records decades later is proof that the medications are a waste, Boniface said.

There is little argument today's horses are more fragile. There are many factors, but critics say Lasix is one of the reasons horses, today, can run only half as many races a year as they did in the 1950's.

  • Jim Axelrod
    Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the chief investigative correspondent and senior national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for "CBS This Morning," the "CBS Evening News," "CBS Sunday Morning," and other CBS News broadcasts.