By Bill Finley
The 2014 GI Wood Memorial was approaching and Dr. Russell Cohen not only wanted to win the race with Effinex (Mineshaft)–he wanted to make a statement. Cohen is a veterinarian who practices at the NYRA tracks, is a breeder and manages Tri-Bone Stables for his mother, Bernice, and he's an outspoken hay, oats and water advocate. He was determined to succeed without any drugs, particularly Lasix, and prove that it could be done.
“That horse is probably 10 Beyer points below the top group of 3-year-olds and putting him on Lasix would probably get that horse a little closer to the competition,” he said at the time. “I'm just not going to do it.”
Effinex got drubbed in the Wood Memorial. The only horse in the race not competing with Lasix, he lost by 17 lengths. In his next start, again without Lasix, he finished a distant third in a New York-bred allowance. And that's when Cohen gave up.
It's tough to stand by your principles when your principles could be costing you a lot of money. Lasix may not be good for horses, may not do much of anything when it comes to controlling breeding and might reduce the longevity of any horse that goes on it, but if you don't run with it and everyone else does you are putting yourself at a serious competitive disadvantage. Cohen ultimately came to that realization, and that's why he caved.
“The reason I put him on Lasix is that I had to in order to compete,” he said. “He won an allowance and a maiden race without it and at that lower level he would have been fine without it. But once we got to the graded stakes level we were at a huge disadvantage, maybe by 12-15 lengths, not being on it. Lasix is a stone cold performance-enhancer. It was horrible that I had to do this. It tortures me.”
Nineteens months later, Effinex has became the last thing Cohen wanted him to be, the poster horse for anyone who still believes you can make do without Lasix. That's not because it keeps horses from bleeding. It's because it makes horses run faster.
Effinex ran five times without Lasix and won a state-bred maiden and allowance races. He's run 15 times with it, finishing second in the GI Breeders' Cup Classic behind American Pharoah and has won last Friday's GI Clark H., the GII Suburban H. and the GIII Excelsior S. Between the Classic and the Clark alone, he earned $1.2 million over a four-week span. In five starts without Lasix he made $90,200. In 15 starts with Lasix, he's made $2,022,750.
Would he have ever reached anywhere near that level without Lasix? It's impossible to say, but easy to speculate that it would not have happened.
Cohen doesn't want all the credit to go to the Lasix because he believes that takes away from Effinex's ability. At least two other factors enter into the equation when it comes to why he improved so dramatically–a trainer change and the likelihood that he is simply a late-developing horse.
Cohen bred his mare What a Pear (E Dubai) to Mineshaft, knowing that the combination was unlikely to produce a precocious horse.
“He is a Mineshaft and none of them start rolling until the end of the 3-year-old year or later,” Cohen said. “It is a maturity thing. I knew that going in when I bred to him. Early on he had some shin problems and just wasn't ready to go.”
He also took the horse away from low-profile trainer David Smith prior to the 2014 Albany and moved him to the Jimmy Jerkens barn.
“Jimmy is not a trainer, he is a horseman,” Cohen said. “He has the infrastructure, the best assistants, the best exercise riders, the best grooms, you name it, and the knowledge to take a horse and make him a good one. There was no way that a little outfit would have the infrastructure to take a horse to the next level.”
Despite how Lasix seems to have played a role in Effinex's improvement, Cohen still hates the drug and racing's cavalier attitude about most medications. He wants Lasix banned.
“I don't care what anyone else says, 99% of all horses run on Lasix and 99% of all horses do not bleed,” Cohen said. “Period. End of story. I have been scoping horses for 30 years and the percentage of horses that really bleed is less than 10%. Do not listen to any veterinarian tell you differently.
“At this point in my career I don't have to mince any words whatsoever. Lasix is a performance-enhancer that needs to be banned from racing. And if a horse bleeds profusely they should no longer be racing.”
Cohen says Effinex still doesn't train on Lasix and that he is given near the minimal dose when he races. He also doesn't allow Jerkens to give the horse any other medications or treatments that enter into that murky area between what's legal, what's not and what's ethical. He handles all his horses that way and says that's why Tri-Bone horses average two to three times more lifetime starts than the average horse.
He still draws lines in the sand, but there's one he reluctantly crossed. And if he didn't he probably wouldn't have put more the $2 million into his mother's purse account.
“It a conundrum,” Cohen said.
Not really. Lasix is everywhere and horses are at a competitive disadvantage without it. For all the wrong reasons or not, you have to use it.