Anne M. Eberhardt

Race-Day Medication Pros and Cons Debated

Kentucky Horse Racing Commission Race Day Medication Committee holds meeting.

The pros and cons of race-day medication in racehorses were debated Nov. 14 during a lengthy meeting of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission Race Day Medication Committee at the state Capitol.

The committee was formed earlier this year after calls for a ban on race-day anti-bleeding drugs and an international medication summit held in New York in June. The KHRC has taken no position on race-day use of furosemide and adjunct bleeder medications.

“It’s a very divisive issue,” said KHRC vice chairman Tracy Farmer, who chairs the committee. “This is an informational session. No decisions will be made today.”

Farmer said about 30 organizations and individuals were asked to comment on the race-day drug issue. About 15 signed up to attend and testify.

“Several invitees said their groups haven’t formed a consensus on the issue, so they declined to speak,” Farmer said.

The meeting began with several presentations on furosemide, called Salix or Lasix, and exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging, the condition for which it is used to treat.

Dr. Alice Stack of Michigan State University said EIPH is common in horses around the world, and that furosemide reduces blood pressure and bleeding but doesn’t cure EIPH.

Stack cited research that shows EIPH increases with age and exercise. Because racing accounts for only 2% of horses’ high-pressure exercise, Stack said it’s feasible to believe a race-day ban on furosemide would have limited impact on the progression of EIPH—but she also said elimination of the drug would likely result in more severe bleeding episodes in racehorses.

There was some discussion early in the meeting about whether furosemide has a positive effect on performance during races and therefore is used for that purpose. Clearly there is disagreement.

KHRC member Ned Bonnie cited “incidental” information that trainers use furosemide to enhance performance because its affects the larynx and thus can aid breathing. Stack said it is feasible furosemide can increase airflow, but no studies have been done linking furosemide, EIPH, and performance.

Dr. Foster Northrop, a member of the KHRC and the committee, took issue with claims individuals use furosemide to enhance performance. Northrop, a racetrack veterinarian, said he never has used furosemide to improve throat function, and to his knowledge there is no legal medication that can be used for that purpose.

According to information presented at the meeting, most foreign racing jurisdictions that ban use of furosemide in racing consider a horse a bleeder if blood trickles from its nostrils after a race. That led to a suggestion that perhaps foreign countries don’t have a handle on EIPH since bleeding in the lungs is the best gauge of the condition.

The meeting, which included 5 1/2 hours of testimony, broke no new ground on research or opinion. If anything, it drove home the split between supporters of continued use of Salix and those who oppose it.

Matt Iuliano, executive director of The Jockey Club, said the organization is against the use of race-day medication. He also cited results of a survey conducted by McKinsey & Company that indicated racing fans oppose use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Iuliano said Salix improves performance; others that offered testimony disagreed, saying it merely combats EIPH. In response to questioning from racing commissions, Iuliano said there is no other known drug that combats EIPH, but he also said The Jockey Club is against race-day medication of any kind.

Dr. David Richardson, representing the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and its American Graded Stakes Committee, said an AGSC pilot program to ban use of Salix in graded stakes for 2-year-olds in 2012 is “designed to move the process beyond discussion and to get action on the issue.” Individual regulatory agencies in each state will have to adopt such a policy before it takes effect.

KHRC member John Ward Jr., a trainer and member of the committee, said if such a plan comes to fruition, he would like to see every 2-year-old that races without Salix in graded stakes be tested so substantive data can be collected.  “Let’s get some science from it,” he said.

Some of the testimony dealt with the United States versus other countries that don’t permit race-day use of furosemide. Breeders’ Cup president Craig Fravel said the organization is “interested in a level playing field with respect to international competition.”

“It’s unquestionable that the American breeding industry has been denigrated in international eyes because we use race-day medication,” Fravel said.

No one from foreign jurisdictions spoke during the meeting.

Horsemen's groups and the Jockeys' Guild said they oppose a ban on Salix. David England, a Kentucky-based trainer, said horse racing has a marketing problem, not a drug problem.

"Many fans have never heard of (Salix), and it makes no difference to them either way," England said. "It seems we've pretty much (eliminated race-day medication). It's much more of a marketing problem."