During an oddly lopsided town hall meeting on a proposal to phase out use of furosemide on race day in listed and graded stakes in Kentucky, proponents of the therapeutic anti-bleeding medication made their case. But in the end, it may not matter.
Roughly 15 individuals commented on the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission proposal, with only one in support. Still, the meeting, held June 5 at the Capitol Annex in Frankfort, gave the appearance the phase-out of furosemide, also called Salix or Lasix, is a given in the state.
The KHRC in May opted not to vote on the plan to phase out use of Salix in listed and graded stakes over a three-year period, but the commission indicated there would be a vote, perhaps at its June meeting. That came after the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council, on a 4-3 vote, recommended continued use of Salix on race day.
An earlier KHRC vote on the ban was 7-7 with one seat not filled. Soon after Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear appointed breeder John Phillips, who supports the Salix phase-out.
The lone speaker at the town hall meeting to support the phase-out was Willie Koester, an owner/breeder and member of the Ohio State Racing Commission. Koester, when he took over as chairman of the Association of Racing Commissioners International in the spring of 2011 for a one-year term, called for a five-year phase-out of Salix on race day in all races.
“I disagree with everyone who has spoken before me,” Koester said during the KHRC town hall meeting. “I support a ban on race-day Salix. "This is fear. We are out of step with the rest of the world. If (Salix isn’t banned) here and now, then where and when?”
Koester also cited information from the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association that 77% of its members support a ban on all race-day medication. Prominent owners and breeders, however, did not attend or speak at the town hall meeting.
John Ward Jr., executive director of the KHRC, said the commission as of the morning of June 5 had received 776 e-mails on the Salix issue, 643 in favor of a ban and 133 against. That led Barry King, a Thoroughbred owner and bettor who commented earlier during the meeting in favor of Salix, to question their lack of support at the hearing.
“Where are these people now?” King said.
Various e-mail campaigns on the Salix debate are under way around the country. The Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association began one a few weeks ago; The Jockey Club and TOBA in April created a website called “CleanHorseRacing.org” that encourages users to e-mail racing commissions in support of a race-day medication ban.
Kentucky HBPA executive director Marty Maline attempted to get details from Ward on the e-mails received by the KHRC but was cut off at the end of the meeting. Maline earlier in the two-hour session said 99% of petition signers are in favor of Salix, and that owners and trainers from California, Florida, Louisiana, and New York requested to weigh in as well.
The Jockey Club was represented at the town hall meeting by Matt Iuliano, executive vice president and executive director of the organization. Iuliano did not request time to speak but after the meeting told reporters The Jockey Club had gone on the record several times before on the topic.
“We support a measured phase-out (of race-day Salix),” Iuliano said. “All of our testimony is on the record, and we have nothing to add to it. We presented the facts, and our support (for the ban) hasn’t waned. What else would we say?”
The absence of comments from the pro-Salix-ban camp raised speculation the KHRC has the votes to pass the phase-out. Though Salix proponents didn’t break new ground at the meeting, their passion was evident.
Three KHRC members—Burr Travis, Tom Conway, and Dr. Foster Northrop—in comments said they oppose a ban on race-day Salix. Travis and Conway spoke as owners, and Northrop as a racetrack veterinarian.
Travis, who called himself an owner, breeder, and pinhooker, said he won’t purchase horses at auction in Kentucky if the ban goes through. He said Kentucky already is at a competitive disadvantage to states with alternative gaming, and a Salix ban would only cause more horses to leave the state.
“We’re already an island,” Travis said. “We’re jeopardizing our own interests. I wonder why this is happening. If people want to race without Lasix, then they should race without Lasix."
Conway also said he wouldn’t buy yearlings or 2-year-olds later this year if the phase-out is approved by the KHRC.
“This is hard to grasp when all the science (supports use of Salix),” Conway said. “The question is, who is behind this public-perception argument? It hasn’t been mentioned in this room today because it’s a red herring. The Jockey Club representative here has chosen not to speak.”
Conway said he received correspondence from CleanHorseRacing.com urging him to support the ban.
“I appreciate them drafting a letter, but I don’t believe The Jockey Club should tell us how to regulate medication in Kentucky,” he said.
Northrop, in response to a claim by Koester that vets make a combined $10 million a year administering Salix, said race-day administration amounts to 1% of his income. Northrop said Salix use is simply about humane treatment of racehorses, and that not using it will drive up vet costs for owners seeking other means to curtail exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging.
“The argument for the health of horses is a moot point,” Northrop said.
Though no prominent owners or breeders from Central Kentucky attended the meeting, Dr. James Casey, an owner, breeder, trainer, and vet from West Virginia was on hand. He said a ban on Salix would put horses and jockeys in danger and have an economic impact, in part because horses wouldn’t race as much.
Dr. Andy Roberts, a member of the KEDRC, read a statement from the 300-member Kentucky Association of Equine Practitioners saying it “unequivocally supports use of race-day furosemide.” Roberts, who voted against the ban at the last KEDRC meeting, said the phase-out is “being sold as grand compromise” when Kentucky horsemen and vets already agreed to stop using adjunct bleeder medications and endorsed administration of Salix by regulatory vets.
“For the record, no horse in Kentucky received legal medication for anything other than bleeding since 2005,” Roberts said.
He also broached an issue raised by others—that “CleanHorseRacing.com,” by design or not, sends the message the sport is dirty. Just last year the RCI issued a release with statistics showing horse racing has the most thorough drug testing of any sport, and that the number of violations for performance-enhancing substances are few.
“I support clean horse racing,” Roberts said, “but clean horse racing and administration of Lasix are two different things.”
Dr. Clara Fenger, an equine vet, discussed the South African Salix study financially supported by The Jockey Club. She said it was “possibly the best study done” on the subject but “The Jockey Club has chosen to ignore the findings.”
The research study found horses bleed less or not at all when racing on Salix. The results of the study, however, have been interpreted in different ways.
Phil Hanrahan, chief executive officer of the National HBPA, presented the KHRC with a packet of information on Salix. Hanrahan, who noted the organization supports continued use of Salix, said the KHRC should rely on science and not "passionate beliefs."
Trainer George "Rusty" Arnold, who sits on the board of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, said Salix is the best option to treat bleeding in racehorses. He asked KHRC members why, at a time when Kentucky is fighting to retain horses, are regulators pushing the Salix proposal.
"Why deliver another blow Kentucky may not be able to withstand?" Arnold said. "This could have disastrous economic effects. The loss of even one horse is too much to take right now."
Arnold also said horsemen have "serious doubts" other states will follow with a ban on Salix.
"Give us answers before you take another vote (on the proposal)." he said.