It was a race out of a boy's adventure book, with a furious finish: three horses neck and neck and neck. There was the hometown horse holding off the challenge of his great rival, and running right with them the slightly mysterious newcomer with the hot reputation. At Monmouth Park in New Jersey on Saturday, the Haskell Invitational Handicap had it all—including the shadowy presence of a drug called Lasix.
At the wire it was Belmont Stakes winner Bet Twice, on his home track of Monmouth, edging Alysheba, the colt that had narrowly beaten him in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. A breath behind was Lost Code, the phenom from the Midwest who led for most of the 1⅛-mile Haskell.
Before the race the one sure winner figured to be the track itself, a small jewel of a course on the Jersey Shore. A few months ago nobody could have foreseen that the 20th running of the Haskell, a respected but rarely sensational Grade 1 race, would be a key event in the championship competition among 3-year-olds, played out before Monmouth's biggest crowd—32,836—since 1971.
But hovering over the track in the week leading up to race day was the specter of Lasix, a drug given to horses to inhibit bleeding in the lungs. In common use at American racetracks for some 15 years, Lasix, or furosemide (see box, page 41), didn't loom large in the public eye until Alysheba, a Lasix-treated colt, won the Kentucky Derby on May 2. Before Alysheba was put on the drug, he had lost seven of eight starts. After the Derby, still on Lasix, Alysheba went on to win the Preakness. Then came the Belmont on June 6. The New York State racing board does not permit race-day use of Lasix, and Alysheba, running without the drug, finished an undistinguished fourth, 14 lengths behind Bet Twice, who has never been treated with Lasix.
Eight weeks later, they would meet again in the Haskell—with an added attraction. While Alysheba and Bet Twice had been fighting it out on the Triple Crown tracks, a bargain-basement colt named Lost Code, bought as a two-year-old for $30,000 complete with a clubbed right forefoot, had won seven straight stakes races at less fashionable venues like Birmingham and Thistledown. But if ever a colt had a Lasix habit it was Lost Code. In his first nine Lasix-less starts he had but two wins. Once put on the drug, Lost Code was undefeated.
From the time it became clear that this was a three-horse race (the two other entries were never a factor), it was impossible to get away from the Lasix Factor. Handicapping suffered from imponderables. Would Alysheba—on Lasix again, as allowed in New Jersey—regain the form to beat Bet Twice? And was Lost Code, dependent on Lasix, really enough horse to compete in this company?
Then, a week before the race, trainer Jack Van Berg dropped a bombshell that further confused the situation, declaring that Alysheba would run without benefit of the drug. "I'm sick of hearing about Lasix," he said. Later in the week Van Berg explained: "We're going to the Travers [at Saratoga on Aug. 22], and they don't run on Lasix up there. So it's better for the horse and better for the public if we run without it this time."
Around the backstretch, however, there were other views of Van Berg's abrupt—and perhaps courageous—change of plan. One concerned Alysheba's value on syndication. A clean, Lasix-less win in the Haskell could add from $2 million to $5 million to the colt's value as a stallion. But Bet Twice's trainer, Jimmy Croll, said Van Berg's decision was predictable: It was plain, Croll indicated, that the five hours which Alysheba would have to spend in a detention barn once Lasix had been administered (in accordance with New Jersey regulations) would be so unsettling for the horse that the treatment would be counterproductive.
Five hours in a detention barn was not about to deter Bill Donovan, trainer of Lost Code. "Lasix has been a godsend to me," said Donovan, a veteran of the backstretch who has never had a horse like Lost Code, winner of $929,096. "Ban it? Hey, I'm a horseman. I make my living doing this. When you have to make a living out of these bums, you do whatever you have to to win. It's almost as if the Lord came down and said, 'Bill, I'm going to put my arm around you, son, and put you out of your misery.' Thirty years I've sweated and hustled, drove vans all night, ponied horses all day, mucked stalls, hotwalked horses, broke yearlings, got thrown, stomped, bit and kicked, traveled all the leaky-roof circuits from Ellis Park to Jefferson Downs to Shenandoah to Water ford. It wasn't so easy." He looked around and smiled. "This is better."
Lasix was his ticket. After mediocre performances by Lost Code as a 2-year-old in Maryland, Donovan had the colt "scoped" (examined for microscopic blood traces in the lungs) by two vets. The results came up negative, and he shipped Lost Code to Alabama. "We sprinted him there," Donovan recalls, "and he gushed blood all over the floor, all over the walls of his stall. We called the vet in and he put him on the Lasix list. I ran him in Birmingham on Lasix for the first time, and he won impressively. So I've kept him on it ever since. How could I change?"