An effort to make Kentucky the first state to ban the anti-bleeder medication furosemide for racing purposes failed April 16 when the state’s Horse Racing Commission voted 7-7 not to approve a recommendation that would have phased out the controversial medication over a three-year period.
The measure, approved by the commission’s Race-Day Medication meeting just prior to the full commission meeting, would have prohibited administration of the medication, marketed as Salix and previously known as Lasix, within 24 hours of a race, beginning with 2-year-olds in 2013 and phased in until it applied to all horses racing in the Bluegrass State by 2015.
Following the failure of the ban, an amended version of the regulation proposed by commissioner Tom Ludt that would have had the phase-in of the Salix ban apply only to stakes for 2-year-olds—not all races—in 2013 was tabled for 30 days. Ludt is chairman of the Breeders’ Cup, which has approved a ban on race-day medications for 2-year-olds in its championship races in 2012 and for all horses in 2013.
Voting in favor of the ban were KHRC chairman Bob Beck, vice chairman Tracy Farmer, Ned Bonnie, Wade Houston, Elizabeth Lavin, Alan Leavitt, and Dr. Jerry Yon. Voting no were Tom Conway, Frank Jones, Franklin Kling Jr., Tom Ludt, Dr. Foster Northrop, Michael Pitino, and Burr Travis.
With a standing room only crowd that included many prominent horse owners, breeders, trainers, and veterinarians, the 14-member commission debated the pros and cons of the issue. For the most part, proponents of the ban said race-day use of Lasix only enhances the public’s perception of horse racing as being influenced by drugs. Also, they cited studies showing that Lasix can have a long-term detrimental effect on a horse’s health.
On the other side, opponents of the ban noted that Kentucky racing would face dire economic consequences if the regulation went into effect and that being able to administer Salix was a therapeutically sound medical practice that actually benefits the horses.
Prominent owner Bill Casner was among those speaking in favor of the proposed regulation, while opponents included Dale Romans, a prominent trainer who also owns and breeds horses.
Casner said he stopped permitting trainers of his horses to treat them with Salix about a year ago and that he has had positive results, with five wins, two seconds, and a third this year, with all the horses Salix-free.
“The American public is growing increasingly intolerant of what they perceive as abuse of animals. I do not think the sky will fall. It has not fallen in my world. In fact, I think I’ve gained a competitive advantage.
“I do not think the sky will fall,’’ Casner said of the proposal. "It’s not fallen in my world. In fact, I really feel like I gained a competitive advantage. And I think it’s the right thing for the horse.’’
Romans said it was inexplicable that the proposed race-day medication ban would come at a time when Kentucky racing was “the weakest state (in racing) and on a slippery slope.”
He questioned why the regulation would allow horses to be trained on Salix but nor race on it if, as the ban proponents contended, it is harmful to the animals.
Noting that Kentucky is already facing a shortage of horses due to competition from states where purses are enhanced by revenues from alternative gaming, horse owner Travis said the effects of the ban would be harmful.
“This is a major mistake,” said Travis, adding that he would no longer purchase horses at the Keeneland auctions to race in Kentucky but would follow the lead of other owners and race his stable elsewhere.
Lavin, a commissioner whose family operates Longfield Farm and whose husband is prominent equine veterinarian Gary Lavin, said she had changed her position on race-day medication and that she now opposed its use.
“This is the right thing to do and the right time to do it,” said Lavin, a member of the Race-Day Medication Committee that had voted 4-1 to recommend approval of the regulation.
Lavin believes a provision in the proposed ban that offers a review of its effects would be a fair compromise between opponents and proponents.
Under that amendment, the Salix ban would be reviewed by the Race-Day Medication Committee in September 2013 to determine what effect it was having on the industry. If it was deemed detrimental to the health of Kentucky racing and no other states followed suit by enacting similar bans, it could be reversed at that time.
“If it doesn’t work, I will be the first to stand up and say ‘we were wrong’,” Lavin said.
One of the most vocal opponents of Kentucky becoming the first state to ban race-day use of Salix was Northrop, an equine veterinarian who was the sole no-vote on the Race-Day Medication Committee.
“I think it is a travesty on our part to ban Lasix as a standalone state,” Northrop said, acknowledging there might be an image problem for the horse industry over its medication practices. “Lasix is good for the horse. I put the horse first.”
Chairman Beck said he believed the commission should approve the phaseout of Salix and take a leadership position with racing, which is losing ground to other sports when it comes to appeal among fans.
“Part of the reason (racing is losing fans) is public perception that we are a drug-infested sport," Beck continued. "I don’t believe that, but its very difficult to move the needle on that, especially when we are the only people who still have race-day medication. I don’t think we should lead the way for the hell of it or to pat ourselves on the back, but because it is the right thing to do.”
The outcome of the vote could have been different if trainer John Ward had still been a commissioner. April 16 was the first day for Ward to assume his new position as executive director of the commission, and any vote he made if he was still on the commission would have broken the tie.
“I’m glad I didn’t have to make a vote,” said Ward, noting how split the industry is on the subject. “This was a very healthy exercise and I believe we will be able to get a consensus over the next 30 days.”
Although the measure offered April 16 did not pass, Ludt's amended version of the proposal will likely be discussed and back before the Race-Day Medication Committee and full commission next month.