If testimony taken Nov. 14 in Kentucky, a major breeding and racing state, is any indication, the battle over use of furosemide on race day doesn’t figure to end any time soon.
With no regulatory action taken in any jurisdiction, even plans to ban the anti-bleeding medication called Salix, or Lasix, in certain graded stakes for 2-year-olds in 2012 seem up against it.
During a fact-finding meeting of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission Race-Day Medication Committee, formed to deal with furosemide and related adjunct bleeder medications, there were some unsubstantiated claims and discussion of research into furosemide—but even the science was interpreted in different ways. And disagreement continues over foreign countries in regard to drug-testing procedures and what therapeutic drugs they use in racehorses.
After 5 1/2 hours of comment from various individuals and groups, it was clear no ground was broken on the issue and that more meetings will be held, at least in Kentucky.
“We will continue down this road,” said KHRC vice chairman Tracy Farmer, who chairs the medication committee.
The road may be long and bumpy. There is a decided split between trainers and breeders on the issue of race-day furosemide; though there were almost 20 presenters at the meeting, no one spoke from a racing association; and the presence of representatives from the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals could indicate the groups plan to be more involved in Thoroughbred racing issues—for better or worse.
The Jockey Club has been outspoken on the race-day issue since the outgoing and incoming chairmen of the Association of Racing Commissioners earlier this year called for a five-year phase-out of furosemide. In response to questions from KHRC members, Jockey Club executive director Matt Iuliano indicated the organization will be a leader but can’t go it alone.
Consensus said to be necessary
“We’re prepared to take a leadership position, but if we don’t have everyone on board from the start, it will be a difficult transition for the rest of the nation,” Iuliano said.
RCI chairman Willie Koester, a member of the Ohio State Racing Commission, outlined the position of the organization and its many racing commission members. RCI policy is consistent with that of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium: Use of furosemide on race day is acceptable only if it is administered by regulatory veterinarians, and that use of adjunct bleeder drugs should end.
Koester noted the RCI board voted to revisit its position on furosemide but there was no consensus. A similar debate by the RMTC, which represents about 25 industry stakeholders—produced similar results, he said.
“RCI believes only healthy horses should be running,” Koester said. “We recognize emotions run high on this subject but we do not want to politicize the issue. (A blanket ban) may have unintended consequences for the health and welfare of the horse.
“We encourage you to eliminate any other medications you allow to be used on race day. But if there is to be a change in the policy (on Salix), it must be universally adopted and universally implemented.”
Koester, who personally opposes use of furosemide on race day, brought up questions that shadow the debate but remain unanswered. He asked how racing on furosemide is different from training on the drug in relation to the breeding shed, and why anti-Salix horse owners continue to race horses on the drug.
“These are questions that need to be addressed,” Koester said.
Rider safety an issue
Terry Meyocks, national manager for the Jockeys’ Guild, brought the human element into the debate. He said the Guild is in full support of the RMTC proposal to continue using furosemide in a more regulated environment.
“Salix is in the best interest of the racehorse,” Meyocks said. “It has proven to be effective. If (administration) is pushed back to 24 hours (from four hours before a race), you might as well give horses a shot of saline solution instead. Jockeys don’t want to ride horses that may suffer a rupture of the pulmonary artery in the middle of a race.”
Meyocks also said people who believe not using furosemide on race day creates a medication-free environment are naïve. He said other drugs will be used to compensate, perhaps to the detriment of the horse and integrity and racing.
“Medication control is one of the few things this industry does well,” Meyocks said. “It’s one of the few areas of this industry that offers complete transparency.”
Animal-rights groups weigh in
Testimony from animal-rights groups sent mixed messages. Dr. Sid Gustafson, representing the HSUS, criticized North American trainers for using therapeutic drugs instead of improving horsemanship but gave no indication the organization is anti-racing.
“We do not oppose horse racing but we do oppose race-day medication,” Gustafson said. “Racing comes natural to a horse. Drugs are not the solution; competent horsemanship is the solution. The humane care of the horse prevents bleeding, my friends.”
Kathy Guillermo of PETA, which has seized on high-profile breakdowns in horse racing, said the organization “never wanted to be involved in this industry but will be involved until changes are made.” She said racing is ripe for federal invention—something some racing stakeholders believe and would welcome—because of some of its policies and practices.
Guillermo didn’t say PETA is anti-racing, though she did ask why horses would be pushed to run if all of them suffer from exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging, the condition for which furosemide is administered. It has been established all horses do suffer from some level of EIPH during strenuous activity.
“Every time a horse circles the track it’s a fatality risk,” Guillermo said. “Drop the pretense that race-day drugs are therapeutic.”
KHRC member Tom Conway, a horse owner, asked Guillermo for clarification.
“Is it inhumane to race a horse without a drug that can help it, or are you simply saying racing of the horse is an inhumane exercise?” Conway said.