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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

Bleeders: It’s All in the Families

Thoroughbred races often produce unexpected results, sometimes shocking ones. Within three minutes on Saturday, two extreme and contrasting scenarios played out at Aqueduct in New York and at Fair Grounds in New Orleans.

Workaholic, racing without Lasix, the anti-bleeder medication, took down first prize in the Cicada Stakes at the Big A to the tune of $75.50. Minutes later, Serengeti Empress, the 3-10 favorite in the Fair Ground Oaks, pulled up, was eased across the finish line, and returned bleeding “through Lasix” from the nostrils. 

On the West Coast and throughout the industry, the debate about the use of race-day Lasix rages on. There should be no dispute. A horse that bleeds is unsound and an unsound horse should not run on race-day, with or without medication. 

Anyone who says that racing a bleeder on Lasix is best for the horse is telling a lie. Stopping on a bleeder and giving it time to heal is what’s best for the horse. Everything else is horse pucky. 
Leaders of racing organizations worldwide applauded Belinda Stronach’s call to end race-day medication. However, some of the jurisdictions that do not permit race-day Lasix do allow it for training.

Many US horses that race with Lasix are getting ready to run in Dubai on Saturday. Some may be doing so on “fake Lasix,” clinically known as Therapeutic Plasma Concentrations of Epsilon Aminocaproic Acid, or Tranexamic Acid. Sometimes these drugs are used separately, sometimes together in a cocktail. 

British trainer Nicky Henderson, during a 2009 hearing for administering the anti-bleeder medication Tranexamic Acid, said that “plenty of trainers” use the banned medication. 

(Better and undetectable anti-bleeder medications probably have been developed in the decade since). 

Something to consider: All of the horses that run abroad without Lasix are automatically permitted to get back on their Lasix program when they return to race in this country, no matter how well they run elsewhere. 

In 1987, when Alysheba was making his bid for a Triple Crown, Lasix was illegal in New York. Jack Van Berg’s colt was on Lasix when he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. But he finished fourth, beaten 14 lengths by Bet Twice in the Belmont Stakes. 

”I’m sick and tired of hearing about Lasix,” Van Berg said at the time. ”I don’t think it had anything to do with him losing the Belmont.” While Alysheba did run well in some races without it, the record shows he certainly raced better on it. 

A World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology states that diuretics are banned in all sports (except for US horseracing) because it can cause rapid weight loss and act as masking agents to hide the effects of other prohibited substances, both in and out of competition.

Last year, Major League Baseball suspended Robinson Cano for 80 games when he tested positive for Lasix. MLB rules don’t forbid Lasix, but if MLB determines a player was using it as a masking agent, the drug triggers a positive test; that’s why MLB gave Cano “days.”

“There isn’t a huge history referencing bleeding. Generally the desire [is] to conceal, rather than reveal. [Bleeding] has [little] impact unless it is a major horse that bled very conspicuously,” said Alan Porter of Pedigree Consultants Inc.

According to Porter’s research, Flying Childers, a foal of 1715, is generally regarded as the first truly great racehorse of the Thoroughbred era. 

But Flying Childers was not a great sire and his progeny did not continue into the present day except through Messenger, a dominant line in Standardbreds, and also through the Tennessee Walker, via a horse called Shales in the Hackney.

Flying Childers had a brother foaled the following year called Bartlet’s or “Bleeding” Childers. For obvious reasons he never raced but his affliction notwithstanding, he was a much better sire. 

Bartlet’s Childers was one of the earliest champion sires of the breed. A descendent of the Darley Arabian, he sired Squirt, who begat Maske, the sire of the great Eclipse, the dominant sire line of today’s Thoroughbreds. He has a presence in the male-line of about 95% of the breed. He has also sired several foundation mares. 

The other founding ancestor that is recorded as a bleeder was Herod (1766), who reportedly lost the Great Subscription Purse at York due to breaking a blood vessel in his lungs. 

Herod’s dam was by Blaze, a son of Flying Childers. Anytime Herod and Eclipse crossed in a pedigree, combining Bleeding Childers with Flying Childers, the assumption was that the bleeding had a heritable component, perhaps a recessive for that trait. 

Eclipse and Herod, combined with in the first three generations of several early English classic winners, Herod (25%) and Eclipse (13%) are the largest contributors to the genetic make-up of the breed, both with bleeders close up in their pedigree. 

Another well-known bleeder was 1867 Epsom Derby winner Hermit. He was the champion sire in England for seven straight years and was hugely influential. He had 50 crosses of Herod and 29 of Eclipse in his first nine generations. A lot of those are through horses that have Herod and Eclipse combined in their pedigrees. 

A look at modern-day horses, where Hermit is still within 10 generations, finds that Northern Dancer had 29 crosses and Mr. Prospector 24. 

Until Secretariat, Northern Dancer’s 2-minutes was the fastest in Kentucky Derby history. Along with Mr. Prospector, Northern Dancer became the bedrock of North American breeding and the progenitor of breed-shaping stallions worldwide.

Trainers in the US for a long time have turned to Lasix to tackle the problem of bleeding: Northern Dancer was “first-time Lasix” for his record-breaking Derby run in 1964.

One can posit that the genetic component of bleeders was pretty much ‘baked in’ early in the breed. Breeders have continued to use stallions that have sired top runners, irrespective of the offspring’s propensity to bleed. 

If the industry goes on masking the negative impact of bleeding with medication and utilizing breeding stock that otherwise would not make effective runners, we are going to continue perpetuating these genetic elements. 

Bleeders have been in the breed since the 1700’s and we have bred for it because it was carried by a great stallion & his sons that produced fast horses. But that doesn’t mean racing can’t choose not to if it wants. In the long term, the industry needs to breed the bleeders out of the gene pool.

© Mark Berner,, 2019

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