The Thoroughbred racing industry is closer to uniformity in medication regulations and penalties than many admit, but agreement on race-day anti-bleeding drugs in a "toxic" environment will require some heavy lifting, officials said May 2.
A panel discussion on race-day medication was part of the first day of the University of Kentucky Equine Law Conference, which is held each year in Lexington the first week of May.
Furosemide, also known as Salix or Lasix, is the only therapeutic medication widely used—legally—on race day. Several states that allow adjunct bleeder medications are in the process of phasing them out under a model rule adopted in 2011.
Rumblings about Salix use began a few years ago, but they erupted last spring when the outgoing and incoming chairmen of the Association of Racing Commissioners International called for a five-year phase-out of its use on race day. Since then the issue has divided the Thoroughbred industry.
“In my thinking Lasix is a classic example of competing truths,” Keeneland president Nick Nicholson said. “And we are an industry that has difficulty with competing truths.”
Nicholson outlined what he called the “truths” about Salix, including the fact that horses bleed in the lungs when stressed; that Salix is proven to help control exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging; that racing and training is much more “predictable” when the drug is used; that Salix is performance-enhancing and is weakening the breed; that Salix does not cause breakdowns in races, and that even the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has acknowledged that; and that horses train regularly on Salix and other therapeutic drugs in other countries.
There is such strong disagreement, Nicholson said, because competition is a focal point of horse racing, and “people who like their opinions are attracted to (the sport).”
Nicholson noted his view is based upon working with owners and trainers at race meets as well as buyers and sellers at auctions. He said he has found there isn’t enough support for an immediate, all-out ban on Salix, but also no solid support for the status quo.
Nicholson called for a “multi-pronged approach” based on the age and quality of racehorses. He said the impact of Salix on the stud book is primarily at the top level of horse racing, and that such a plan would allow the industry time to gauge how Salix-free racing works.
“We can learn from a multi-pronged phase-in, and also find a better way to respect each others’ opinions (on the issue),” Nicholson said.
The Keeneland president also said racing must find a way to appeal to the modern patron, with safety of horse and rider the top priority. Nicholson said that, with the proper regulatory foundation, “there is no reason Thoroughbred racing can’t have a bright future.”
Nicholson's common sense approach and respect sat well with fellow panelist Alan Foreman, an attorney who serves as chief executive of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. Foreman did, however, stick by his belief that Salix should be the only legal race-day drug.
“That was the best presentation on medication that I’ve heard in many years,” Foreman said. “Much of what Nick said I would agree with. That tone has been lacking in what I would call a very toxic environment right now.
“I represent horsemen, and in this environment, that gets dismissed immediately.”
Foreman said Salix was “welcomed with open arms, almost relief” decades ago because participants didn’t believe racing was on a level playing field. He said the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, a group of 25 major industry stakeholders, determined in the 2000s that Salix is safe and beneficial for racehorses.
“Lost in the current discussion is what is best for the horse,” Foreman said.
Foreman said any plan by the American Graded Stakes Committee to withhold grades based on whether or not Salix is banned would be ripe for lawsuits, as would legislation in Congress that defines any equine medication as performance-enhancing.
“I don’t think the federal government’s running of horse racing would be any better than anything else it does,” Foreman said. “It all comes back to the state regulators and the political environment.”
Matt Iuliano, executive vice president and executive director for The Jockey Club, which recently floated reformed model medication rules for Thoroughbred racing, said research into Salix has left more questions than answers. He said it hasn’t been proven most horses bleed enough to warrant use of Salix, and that in the last 20 years, the number of starts per horse dropped 40% while the number of horses racing on the anti-bleeding drug doubled to about 95%.
“Science doesn’t support (its use), and neither does the rest of the world,” Iuliano said. “Fans are becoming more and more intolerant of drugs in the sports they follow. It’s as simple as that.”
Iuliano also said claims of a level playing field with Salix use are questionable given the fact horses can lose 20-25 pounds with Salix administration, and because the drug alkalinizes in the blood—something akin to a “milkshake” effect. He also said there are three categories of racehorses: bleeders, non-bleeders, and horses that don’t run on it.
“A lot of topography exists on a playing field that’s supposed to be level,” Iuliano said.
The Jockey Club’s reformed rules propose uniformity and reason in the penalty system for medication violations. Nicholson, in supporting the changes, said naming drugs that can be used, lower threshold levels for testing of legal drugs, national penalties and enforcement, and accountability of laboratories are necessary.
There also should be a “reasonable vehicle to know when a state is falling behind” in various categories, he said.
“We are much closer to national uniformity than we have ever been,” Nicholson said. “We always beat ourselves up over it. Let’s get this over the top.”
Foreman said the THA in 2001 offered many similar suggestions, and progress has been made; for instance, he noted 12 of 19 drug-testing labs have been internationally accredited. He said that from 2008 to 2009, use of anabolic steroids for non-therapeutic uses was banned.
“The Lasix debate is just the latest example of an industry that beats itself up,” Foreman said. “If racing has problems, it must be because we’re drugging horses. Racing has the best drug testing and is the only sport that regulates use of medication.
“Here we are 10 years later and we’re still talking about the same things. The industry doesn’t want to receive or give itself credit (for progress).”