Use of race-day medication de­bated

The News-Times - - SPORTS -

The deaths of 23 horses over three months at Santa Anita in Cal­i­for­nia have roiled the rac­ing in­dus­try and prompted abrupt changes in race-day medication rules that would al­ter the Triple Crown series be­gin­ning in 2021.

With in­ter­est among the gen­eral pub­lic at its high­est start­ing with Satur­day’s Ken­tucky Derby, the sport — and the drug Lasix — is un­der in­tense scru­tiny.

“We’re fo­cused on sur­vival,” Made­line Auer­bach, vice chair of the Cal­i­for­nia Horse Rac­ing Board, said at a re­cent meet­ing. “We want to keep all of us safe and we want to keep all of us in busi­ness.”

The high num­ber of deaths at Santa Anita has stoked pal­pa­ble fear in Cal­i­for­nia about the possibilit­y of a statewide bal­lot ini­tia­tive in 2020 ask­ing vot­ers whether horse rac­ing should con­tinue. It would re­quire about 620,000 sig­na­tures to get on the bal­lot.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors from the rac­ing board are work­ing with those as­signed by the Los An­ge­les County District At­tor­ney’s Of­fice to try to fig­ure out the cause of the fa­tal­i­ties, with over 70 sub­poe­nas is­sued. Most of the necrop­sies in­volv­ing the dead horses have been com­pleted, al­though re­sults have yet to be made pub­lic.

Lasix has be­come a cen­tral is­sue in re­form dis­cus­sions. Though it has not been linked to any horse deaths, Lasix is the only medication al­lowed on race day.

The drug for­mally known as furosemide has been used for decades in U.S. rac­ing. It’s given as an in­jec­tion about four hours be­fore a race to help pre­vent pul­monary bleeding. Lasix also works as a di­uretic that causes horses to uri­nate and lose 20 to 30 pounds of fluid, which can in­crease their abil­ity to run faster.

In hu­mans, furosemide is used to treat blood pressure and help re­duce ex­cess fluid in the body.

Whether all the dis­cus­sions about race-day medication and the use of whips are just knee-jerk re­ac­tions to pla­cate crit­ics or rep­re­sent mean­ing­ful change in the sport is an on­go­ing de­bate within the U.S. rac­ing in­dus­try.

The As­so­ci­a­tion of Rac­ing Com­mis­sion­ers In­ter­na­tional’s Sci­en­tific Ad­vi­sory Group this month re­ported there is no cur­rent science link­ing Lasix treatments to mus­cu­lar skele­tal issues that may be a con­tribut­ing cause of horse break­downs.

Nonethe­less, un­der pressure af­ter the spike in deaths, Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia — both owned by The Stronach Group — an­nounced plans to phase out Lasix use in stages. Now it’s al­lowed at half of pre­vi­ous lev­els. In 2020, 2-year-old horses won’t be al­lowed to be treated with it within 24 hours of rac­ing.

Eric Hamel­back, CEO of the Na­tional Horse­men’s Benev­o­lent and Pro­tec­tive As­so­ci­a­tion, re­cently said he is “dis­turbed and mys­ti­fied” by plans to phase out Lasix use.

“Horses will con­tinue to have in­juries with­out race­day ad­min­is­tra­tion of Lasix,” Hamel­back said. “How­ever, what also will hap­pen is more horses will ex­pe­ri­ence ex­er­cise-in­duced pul­monary hem­or­rhag­ing, which is sys­temic not only in thor­ough­breds but equines in gen­eral. Lasix has been proven to be ef­fec­tive and pre­vent­ing or re­duc­ing the sever­ity of EIPH for well over 30 years.”

Some of the coun­try’s other big­gest tracks have joined Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields in phas­ing out Lasix, in­clud­ing Churchill Downs, Pim­lico and Bel­mont, hosts of the Triple Crown series. The newly formed coali­tion in­cludes Saratoga in up­state New York and Del Mar near San Diego, which stage the sum­mer’s high­est-pro­file races.

They all agreed to phase out the use of the drug start­ing next year.

In 2021, the ban would ex­tend to all horses com­pet­ing in any stakes races — the high­est-level events — at tracks in the coali­tion. That’s when the Triple Crown would be run for the first time un­der the new medication rules.

The ban must be ap­proved by reg­u­la­tors in each state, and it fig­ures to draw op­po­si­tion from train­ers and owners con­cerned that an im­me­di­ate ban on Lasix — rather than a grad­ual wean­ing off it — could be prob­lem­atic and cause po­ten­tial health risks.

Sim­i­lar rules were tried in 2011, but the Amer­i­can Graded Stakes Com­mit­tee and the Breed­ers’ Cup were forced to aban­don them two years later af­ter pressure from horse­men.

An in­dus­try vet­eri­nary group sup­ports the use of Lasix on race day to man­age the ef­fects of EIPH.

At the same time, Dr. Jeff Berk, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of Equine Prac­ti­tion­ers, said there is “ur­gent need” for con­tin­ued re­search into find­ing al­ter­na­tive meth­ods to Lasix.

Alan Fore­man, chair­man and CEO of the Thor­ough­bred Horse­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion, said Lasix is “be­ing de­mo­nized” and isn’t the cause of the deaths at Santa Anita.

“Lasix has noth­ing to do with it be­cause if that was the case, then why aren’t horses break­ing down left and right like they were there?” he said. “Those who are op­posed to Lasix have seized on this sit­u­a­tion as an op­por­tu­nity for them. It’s a to­tal mis­di­rec­tion and for some rea­son The Stronach Group bought into that.”

Belinda Stronach, TSG chair­man and pres­i­dent, said, “We are tak­ing a stand and fully rec­og­nize just how dis­rup­tive this might be.”

An­i­mal rights ac­tivists say some med­i­ca­tions mask symptoms they al­lege can lead to cat­a­strophic in­juries and they point out that out­side North America most coun­tries ban race-day medication.

The move to phase out the use of Lasix has been wel­comed by Peo­ple for the Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of An­i­mals.

“It took 23 dead horses on one track,” said Kathy Guillermo, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of PETA, “but we were sure that the rac­ing in­dus­try could change if it wanted to and phas­ing out Lasix for stakes races and 2-year-olds is an ex­cel­lent first step in what must be an on­go­ing over­haul of rac­ing rules na­tion­wide.”

The reg­u­lated use of Lasix is vol­un­tary and any horse rac­ing on it is noted in a track’s pro­gram to pro­vide trans­parency for bet­tors.

“It would be fine with me if we run with­out Lasix,” said Rick Porter, who owns prob­a­ble Ken­tucky Derby fa­vorite Omaha Beach.

Char­lie Riedel / As­so­ci­ated Press

Ken­tucky Derby hope­ful Omaha Beach is rid­den dur­ing a work­out at Churchill Downs on Tues­day in Louisville, Ky. The 145th run­ning of the Ken­tucky Derby is sched­uled for Satur­day.

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