The often hotly debated Lasix question took another new twist in North American horse racing last Friday evening.
Where it goes from here is anybody’s guess.
My guess is nowhere, but anyway, a group of 25 trainers, including some of the biggest names in the business, issued a statement advocating for a gradual phase-out of raceday medication, which essentially means Lasix.
That’s the “(L)” you see next to just about every horse in your Saratoga Race Course program and stands for the diuretic furosemide (brand name Lasix). Those in favor of raceday Lasix frequently cite the results published in 2009 of a study in South Africa that showed that Lasix had the ability to curtail bleeding in the lungs during strenuous exercise and racing.
The implications on racing performance should be obvious: oxygen exchange in the lungs is more efficient when a horse isn’t clogged up with blood.
The Breeders’ Cup tried to take the bull by the horns in recent years by banning raceday medication for races involving 2-year-olds, but after two years, their policy reverted back to allowing raceday Lasix.
Now we have a group spearheaded by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher that is trying to “get something started, because that’s what’s lacking in our industry, is anyone to step up and lead us,” said Graham Motion, one of the 25.
In a not-widely-disseminated press release that eventually made the rounds of media, the group proposed that no 2-year-olds in North America receive raceday medication by the start of 2015, with a total phase-out for thoroughbreds of all ages by the beginning of 2016.
Much of the motivation behind this movement is to change the public perception of the sport as being too aligned with and dependent upon drugs as performance enhancers, as opposed to being therapeutic tools to treat diagnosed afflictions. Most jurisdictions around the world don’t allow raceday drugs.
The group also is pushing for universal medication rules from state to state and supports the Racing Medication & Testing Consortium’s push to approve model rules for 26 controlled medications by the RCI board of directors.
“I think American racing is extremely clean, and it is not perceived as clean as it is,” said Pletcher, a six-time Eclipse Award winner as the top trainer in North America.
“I would like to see the perception improved because I think, in reality, we are all trying to do what is best for racing and promote the sport for the long term.”
“American racing has always been a global leader, and it’s time to restore confidence in our game and in our international standing,” Lukas said in the release.
Besides Lukas, the initial list of trainers, which has added a few more after the statement came out, includes six other Hall of Famers, Roger Attfield, Neil Drysdale, Richard Mandella, Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott and Jonathan Sheppard.
Noticeably absent were Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, Dale Romans and Rick Violette, the president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen Association.
Among the forces at work preventing some of the smaller outfits from joining could be fear of losing clients who are adamantly in favor of running their horses on Lasix.
“It’s no different than deciding where we’re going to run a horse or who we’re going to ride,” said David Donk, one of the trainers on the list. “I don’t feel like, no, it has to be my way or the highway. Everything’s in consultation.
“I’ve never had an owner say to me, I don’t want my horse on Lasix. If they did, I would’ve said OK. I think you’re at a little bit of a disadvantage. All I want to see is a level playing field. I think most of us run on Lasix because the majority of people do.”
Blowback was swift from Violette.
Based on his published response on Saturday morning, this issue hasn’t gotten any less divisive.
In part, he said, “A Lasix ban does not benefit the horse, the owner or the horseplayer. Forcing trainers to return to using archaic methods to treat bleeders, whether it is the barbaric practice of taking away water for 24 to 48 hours or trying homeopathic remedies with questionable results, is not progress. Absent a researched and reasoned alternative to protect horses from EIPH [exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage], NYTHA is vehemently against any ban on Lasix.”
Donk said good horsemen will find a safe way to work around a Lasix ban.
New York was the last state to get on board approving it for raceday, in 1995. He trained for 15 years before that, and believes that much of the resistance to a Lasix ban will come from trainers whose generation never had to deal with that.
Gary Contessa said he was “broad-sided” by Friday’s statement when he read about it on Saturday, not so much because he wasn’t asked to join, but because they were able to keep the whole thing secret.
“Nothing happens on the racetrack that everybody else doesn’t know,” he said. “If that guy cheats on his wife, the whole racetrack knows about it. How did they pull this off?”
He agreed, indirectly, with Donk that trainers would be able to adjust and stay in business without Lasix on raceday.
“I happen to be a pro-Lasix guy because of what the information that I’ve seen is, it does help the horses not bleed, and that’s the whole thing,” Contessa said. “If this battle goes the other way, we’ll live.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I’m a horseman. We’ll figure it out. That’s what I do. If everybody’s going to run without Lasix, I’ll figure out how to run without Lasix.”
“It just scratches the surface, because it’s all very well to have no raceday medication, but then it becomes that, it’s got to be enforced,” Motion said. “That’s my biggest concern, because in our sport, we’re way behind the eight ball with enforcing the rules.
“As trainers, we’ve started using medication as a crutch, and we’re all going to have to adjust and think a little more about how to deal with things.”