Lasix: the last thing we should do is kick the can down the road one more time

Churchill Downs, one of the major American racetracks supporting the move against race-day Lasix

You may recall that on April 18, a large number of racetracks - controlling 86 percent of the Graded/listed stakes in the U.S. - announced that all 2-year-old racing in 2020 would not allow the administration of Lasix on race-day, and the program would be extended to all stakes in 2021.

The tracks supporting this include all tracks owned or operated by Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI), the New York Racing Association (NYRA) and The Stronach Group (TSG), as well as Del Mar, Keeneland, Lone Star Park, Remington Park, Los Alamitos, Oaklawn Park and Tampa Bay Downs. 

In addition, major national Thoroughbred organizations that signed in support of this proposal include the Breeders’ Cup, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA), the American Graded Stakes Committee and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association (KTA). In my 20-plus years in the Thoroughbred racing industry, I have never seen such an overwhelming majority endorsement of any significant racing initiative.

Immediate pushback

However, as soon as this initiative was announced, there was immediate pushback from horsemen’s groups from around the country. Interestingly, because this Lasix announcement by the tracks occurred at around the time of the serious breakdowns at Santa Anita, these horsemen’s groups consistently cited the fact that there is no correlation between race-day Lasix and breakdowns, which by the way is correct. 

Here are two quotes from major racetrack CEOs at the time.

David O’Rourke, President and CEO of NYRA: “This is a progressive and unified approach to the subject of race-day medication, achieving consistency with international standards for young horses and those that form the foundations of our breeding stock.”

Bill Carstanjen, President and CEO of CDI: “Over the past several years, we have met with numerous stakeholders to drive action on many of our sport’s central issues. This is a significant and meaningful step to further harmonize American racing with international standards. We will continue to work with other stakeholders, including our horsemen and regulatory agencies, to fully implement this and other important reforms.”

These comments from these two major racing executives indicate a strong desire to move forward to improve the racing industry.

The efficacy of Lasix and the amount of exercised-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH) that affects a horse’s performance have been argued/debated for years. For example, epistaxis - a horse bleeding from the nose - occurs in less than one percent of racehorses. EIPH can affect as many as 50 percent of horses in a race, but there are questions regarding how EIPH affected their actual performance. 

The real fact is that Lasix is used by over 95 percent of the horses in an American Thoroughbred race because Lasix is truly a performance-enhancing drug. One could debate this, but here are three facts:

  • Check out the Beyer speed figure when a horse has not raced previously on Lasix, and again when the horse has run on it for the first time
  • Many of the owners/trainers who belong to Water Hay Oats Alliance (WHOA), an organization that supports the ban of race-day medications, run their horses in the U.S. on Lasix as they do not want their horses to be at a competitive disadvantage.
  • When major European owners/trainers race in the U.S. in important stakes races, the overwhelming majority of their horses run on Lasix for the first time.

Statements made when this no-Lasix program was announced in April indicate that the horsemen/trainers are prepared to oppose the implementation of no Lasix for 2-year-olds in 2020. Here are a few comments made at the time.

Joe Appelbaum, President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (NYTHA): “Our trainers widely believe that furosemide [Lasix] is an effective tool in combating EIPH. While the outcome of this initiative won’t be clear for many years, NYTHA represents the most talented horsemen in the world and we will work diligently to rise to the challenge of managing EIPH while maintaining the health and welfare of our horses.” Under the previous President, Rick Violette, NYTHA was the most outspoken pro-Lasix state horsemen’s organization in the country.

Eric Hamelback, CEO National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (NHBPA): “I am disturbed and mystified by the announced initiative by the coalition to phase out the use of the anti-bleeder medication furosemide in all 2-year-olds racing at their tracks in 2020 and all stakes races in 2021. Many of us in the industry strongly believe that it is reckless to unilaterally suggest a policy change that directly impacts horses’ welfare without consulting veterinary leadership or the horsemen’s representative.”

My response to this is this quote from an article entitled At the Track, Racing Economics Collide With Veterinarians’ Oath by Walt Bogdanich, Joe Drape and Rebecca R. Ruiz in the New York Times in September 2012:

“Only veterinarians can legally prescribe medicine, yet they often let trainers, who are paid to win races, make medical decisions, including which drugs to use. These veterinarians also have a powerful financial incentive to prescribe drugs: they are both doctor and drugstore, and so the more drugs they prescribe, the more money they make. Selling and administering drugs, in fact, accounts for most of their income.”

The Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (THA) Chairman and CEO, Alan Foreman, is one of the most highly regarded lawyers and racing executives in the industry. He has consistently been a staunch supporter of the use and efficacy of Lasix. The THA issued a statement that included this: “It has been the mid-Atlantic’s region’s collective position including [that of the THA] that, in the absence of a more effective treatment of EIPH, the current strictly regulated system for the administration of furosemide on race day should be maintained, because it is in the best interests of the health and welfare of the horse - our number one priority in racing.

Well, it has been over six months since the announcement of the racetracks’ position on eliminating Lasix on race day. I believe there are ten state racing jurisdictions involving the tracks that would need the approval of their state regulatory body to move forward. Perhaps some tracks can implement the new Lasix rule under so-called ‘house rules’. However, because a medication is involved, most state regulatory agencies will want to pass this through their rule-making process. In most state agencies, the horsemen’s organizations and their lobbyists have more power with the regulators than the racetracks.

The first state to take up eliminating Lasix for 2-year-olds in 2020 was Kentucky. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) has a separate commission, the Equine Drug Research Council (EDRC), which makes recommendations on all medication matters. The ERDC has nine members - six veterinarians, a state senator and one representative from each of the Thoroughbred and harness tracks. Five of the six veterinarians are practicing vets, and, as Matt Hegerty reported in Daily Racing Form on October 28, they voted as a block to defeat the measure. 

The partial Lasix phase-out had the support of all Kentucky racetracks. Mike Ziegler, Executive Director of Racing at Churchill Downs, said the tracks would ask the Kentucky commission to consider the proposal despite the vote of the ERDC. 

Full transparency demanded

Finally, in 2015, Keeneland persuaded the Kentucky commission to allow them to conduct a limited number of Lasix-free races in 2016. The Kentucky Attorney General stepped in and did not allow Keeneland to go forward with Lasix-free races under house rules. The Kentucky AG ruled, “In summary, we advise the KHRC may not delegate to private actors its authority to determine which regulations for the administration of drugs to horses apply to a particular race, as setting regulations for the administration of drugs to horses is a discretionary committed by statute by statute to KHRC.”

I would ask that the horsemen/trainers take a big step back and assess the state of racing in the mind of the public. 

I believe the racetracks have come to realize that communication and the speed of that communication with their customers has truly changed. The industry average of 1.68 breakdowns per 1,000 starters is no longer going to be acceptable, and full transparency of these numbers is being demanded. 

Curtailment of the use of the whip will be demanded by our customers. Arguments that the whip does not really hurt the horse or that the jockey needs the whip for his/her own safety unfortunately are not relevant. Sensibilities are changing rapidly regarding our sport. 

Painful lesson

Finally, most customers, including newcomers, know that the big L beside almost every horse in a racetrack program means that all these horses are running on drugs.

Staying on the subject of Lasix, any veterinarian who does any serious research on medications for horses will tell you that there has been no serious study on the causes of EPIH, or possible new medical solutions. They will also tell you that, other than being a potent diuretic, no one really knows the long-term effect of Lasix on a broodmare or a stallion. 

The racetracks have learned a painful lesson that they have to work together to solve the increasing demands that their customers are making on transparency and accountability. Race-day Lasix has to go. 

A number of the horsemen’s representatives have complained that the track operators did not talk to them about the change in the Lasix policy. We all know that there isn’t anything new to talk about. The last thing we should do now is kick the can down the road one more time.

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