When the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission holds a town hall meeting on race-day medication in early June, it seems doubtful new ground will be broken. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground in the debate over the anti-bleeding drug furosemide.
The divisiveness played out again May 16 during two regulatory meetings in Kentucky.
“I consider this an emotional issue,” said KHRC executive director John Ward Jr., who offered a compromise regulation on graded and listed stakes for the commission to consider. “This issue is abortion, gun control, and smoking all rolled into one.”
The debate goes far beyond support for or opposition to administration of furosemide, also known as Salix or Lasix, four hours before a race. There are conflicting claims about whether it helps or hurts racehorses and whether a phased-in ban will save money or cost more in the long run.
The results of a limited number of studies on Salix have been interpreted in different ways. And it has become hard to separate propaganda from fact.
“One of the worst diseases that sweeps through the backside is paranoia,” said Dr. Gary Lavin, a member of the Kentucky Equine Drug Council Research Council.
Some have gone so far to say it doesn’t matter if news reports on equine medication and injuries aren’t completely factual because horse racing has a perception problem, and perception is reality. Others question how decisions can be made based on innuendo, and say there is no solid evidence the public is anti-Salix despite polls taken by The Jockey Club.
Salix supporters used the record numbers reported by Churchill Downs for its Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (both gr. I) programs as proof the public is not rejecting horse racing.
Economics have compounded the situation in Kentucky, which is losing horses to other states with racetracks that support purses through alternative gaming.
KHRC member Frank Jones Jr., a pro-Salix Thoroughbred owner, at the May 16 commission meeting discussed figures he said came from Bob Evans, chairman of Churchill Downs Inc. A few days before he told the Louisville Courier-Journal he believes a Salix ban could hurt Kentucky racing.
Jones, citing the figures, said there were about 2,600 races in Kentucky in 2008, with a projection of 1,750 in 2012. He said CDI predicts another 30% decrease in races with a full Salix ban, as well as a $12 million drop in purses and a loss of almost three horses per race from 2010 field size figures.
“It’s economic,” Jones said. “If we were a standalone state (without Salix), I challenge you to say how will you increase horses, purses, or anything else. We’re not increasing any of these dynamics now with Lasix.”
Through mid-May, Churchill averaged 8.34 horses per race, about even with the 8.32 figure at this time in 2011, according to The Jockey Club Information Systems.
Ward noted there are about 45,000 races in the United States each year, and only 1.6%--about 700—are graded or listed stakes. Therefore, under the proposed Kentucky regulation, the percentage of non-Salix users would be small.
A scenario of having top-level horses race “clean” and the majority still on Salix, doesn’t sit well with veterinarians who say protection of horses shouldn’t be tied to the class level at which they compete.
During the May 16 KEDRC meeting, member Dr. Frank Marcum said veterinary groups support the continued use of Salix in all racehorses.
“More horses race on it than need to, but the focus is on prevention (of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging), not treatment of it,” Marcum said. “This industry continues to make the horse the victim. If owners are so opposed, they shouldn’t run their horses on Lasix. They’re not forced to run on Lasix.”
Use of Salix without having to show a horse has bled came about several years ago through a model rule adopted by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. The group of about 25 stakeholder organizations determined that, for the benefit of uniformity and having a level playing field, all racehorses should have access to the therapeutic medication on race day.
Now, some RMTC members have done an about-face, saying there is no level playing field if any therapeutic drugs are used on race day.
“It’s a profoundly difficult issue,” KHRC equine medical director Dr. Mary Scollay said. “I go back and forth. As a vet, I practice to protect the horse, but what we need to consider whether we’re doing that.
“I don’t have an answer. I don’t mean to chicken out. Potentially, (the proposed Kentucky regulation) is a fair compromise.”
Lavin, who recalled when Salix was first used on race day in some jurisdictions, said he supports “tepid curtailment” of use of Salix, which he said is “terribly misunderstood” because it’s “good for the horse but really bad for the business.”
Lavin said with furosemide having been used for only 25 years, it’s not fair to say the drug has “deteriorated the breed.” He did contend, however, that use of phenylbutazone, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that treats pain, has damaged the breed because it hinders bone remodeling in horses.
Phenylbutazone, or Bute, cannot be administered on race day in most jurisdictions, but it is a widely used therapeutic drug, even outside of North America.
Lavin said its time for the industry to “start doing something” in regard to Salix, but he also said there needs to be more research on the drug. EDRDC member Rick Hiles, president of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, opposes any Salix ban but did agree with Lavin that more study is needed.
“I think there are some things out there we need to be exploring with our money without worrying about (banning) Lasix,” Hiles said. “We need more and more definitive studies before we step into this.”
The only sure thing—at this point—is that 2-year-olds will not be allowed to run on race-day Salix in a handful of stakes during the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita Park. Because the proposed Kentucky regulation would deal only with 2-year-old stakes in 2013, there could be a ban in place before the first such stakes is raced in late June or early July of next year.
KEDRC member Dr. Andy Roberts, who said he only uses Salix in his racehorses when needed but opposes a ban, questioned why regulators need to be involved. He said the American Graded Stakes Committee has the power to pull graded status if horses race on Salix.
Dan Metzger, president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, under which the AGSC falls, said the group had planned to take such action for 2-year-old graded stakes but pulled back for further review.
“We could do it on our own if we wish,” Metzger said. “But our preference is to work with regulators to get this in place.”