The West Virginia Racing Commission heard the pros and cons of race-day furosemide use Sept. 17 and pledged to examine the steps necessary to implement mandatory administration of the anti-bleeding drug by regulatory or third-party veterinarians.
The about three-hour meeting served as a information-gathering session for the commission in light of ongoing national discussion about use of furosemide, which is known as Salix or Lasix. Race-day Salix is legal in West Virginia, but the commission has submitted to the legislation a rule that would ban use of adjunct bleeder medications on race day.
"One thing that is very apparent is there are both proponents and opponents," WVRC chairman Joe Smith said to begin the meeting in Charleston. "I have to think further research is needed to be done to find out if Lasix is performance-enhancing or performance-enabling. What's best for the industry and the horse is the priority of the racing commission."
There were no surprises during the meeting, with horsemen supporting continued use of Salix and a few industry groups–The Jockey Club and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association–advocating for change. A representative of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, commonly called PETA, called for more drastic changes.
Ken Lowe, president of the Charles Town Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and a pro-Salix owner and breeder, started his comments by opening a bottle of furosemide and taking his daily pill in front of the racing commission and staff. Lowe said he was prescribed the medication after bypass surgery several years ago.
"I'm glad you didn't bring your horse in," Smith said with a laugh.
Lowe said Salix is used for preventative purposes in horses, too, and shouldn't be banned in racing or training. He said a ban could have widespread negative impact on the industry as a whole.
"Why should (horse owners) continue to invest in the industry?" Lowe said. "Why take that risk? I bear the financial burden of veterinary care for my horses. If you ban Lasix there will be lots and lots of horses looking for homes. These horses need something to do."
Andy Schweigardt, director of development and industry relations for TOBA and secretary of the American Graded Stakes Committee, said 76% of TOBA members support a phase-out of race-day Salix beginning with graded and listed stakes for 2-year-olds. He said other countries have expressed displeasure with race-day drug use in the United States and are threatening to take action by not acknowledging grades for stakes, which could impact cataloging standards.
"These are not idle threats," Schweigardt said.
Schweigardt also discussed the results of studies in Great Britain and France, where Salix is only permitted for training, indicating test samples showed 0.11% and 0.04% of horses, respectively, had the drug in their systems.
"These numbers indicate (Salix use in training) is not prevalent in these two countries," he said.
Steve May, vice president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, said the organization, through its model rule, allows "controlled administration" of Salix on race day, but no other drugs. He said RCI hasn't reached a consensus on use of Salix, and that more scientific study is needed before decisions are made.
"We recognize that emotions run high on this issue but we do not agree with those who choose to politicize this matter in an attempt to impose their personal opinions–be they for or against race-day medication–as a justification for legislative or administrative action," May said. "This is an equine health and welfare issue linked to the necessity to have public policy that ensures a level playing field for all involved."
Regulatory or third-party administration of Salix was addressed by Erich Zimny, director of racing operations at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races. Zimny said Charles Town, owned by Penn National Gaming Inc., would make no judgment on use of Salix but does want all factors and positions to be considered before a decision is made on race-day use.
Zimny did, however, say Charles Town would like to see Salix administration taken out of the hands of private veterinarians for the benefit of industry integrity.
"This doesn't pass the smell test with bettors and racetracks, and it shouldn't pass the smell test with regulators," he said. "Why should we even leave this window open?
Smith said the WVRC would pursue such a policy, which involves the state taking bids on such a veterinary service.
"Further research needs to be done on Lasix, and we will be following the RCI closely," Smith said. "But one thing that's not dependent on research is having a neutral party administer Lasix on race day. We will deal with the issue."