02/24/2017 5:00PM

California to allow tracks to write medication rules for individual races

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A rule that will allow racetracks in California to use medication-based criteria to determine eligibility for races is re-opening the possibility that the Breeders’ Cup will attempt to implement event-specific medication rules when the Breeders’ Cup two-day event is held later this year at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club near San Diego.

The rule, which was passed unanimously by the California Horse Racing Board on Thursday, gives racetracks the right to create their own medication rules for individual races as long as the conditions of the race “are agreed to in advance in writing by the acknowledged horsemen’s organization,” and as long as the racetrack obtains approval from the CHRB for its own sampling and testing procedures. In order to enforce the eligibility requirements, the tracks would have to collect and test urine and blood samples independent of the samples collected and tested under state authority.

Although the rules were crafted specifically to allow Los Alamitos to implement zero-tolerance policies in Quarter Horse races for a host of medications that are regulated by the CHRB, the rule changes also drew support from the chief executive of the Breeders’ Cup, Craig Fravel, who submitted a letter to the CHRB endorsing approval. Fravel is the former president and general manager of Del Mar.

On Friday, when asked whether the Breeders’ Cup would pursue medication-based eligibility requirements for the 2017 event, the organization replied in an e-mailed statement that, “Breeders’ Cup is working with the [Thoroughbred Owners of California], Del Mar, and CHRB staff and will announce our program when those conversations are completed.”

In 2012 and 2013, when the Breeders’ Cup was held at Santa Anita in Southern California, the Breeders’ Cup banned the use of the legal race-day anti-bleeding medication furosemide in its 2-year-old races. The policy, which was supported by influential board members and other racing constituencies but criticized by some horsemen and horseplayers, was rescinded for the 2014 event after the Breeders’ Cup acknowledged that horsemen in California had threatened to withdraw their approval of the dissemination of the event’s simulcast signal if the ban remained in place.

In addition, horsemen in Kentucky had indicated that they would fight any medication restrictions outside of the state’s existing rules if the Breeders’ Cup selected a track in the state for its 2015 event. The Breeders’ Cup eventually selected Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington for the 2015 event, but only after announcing that the furosemide ban had been rescinded. The 2018 event is scheduled to return to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., in 2018.

A ban on the race-day use of furosemide is popular in some quarters of the U.S. racing industry, but horsemen have aggressively resisted any attempts on prohibition, citing scientific evidence that race-day use of the diuretic mitigates the frequency and severity of bleeding in the lungs. Most major racing jurisdictions outside the U.S. and Canada ban the race-day use of the drug.

Many horseplayers had also criticized the Breeders’ Cup’s earlier ban on the drug in 2-year-old races, contending that the rule created unnecessary question marks about a horse’s potential performance by forcing horses who had previously run on the medication to go without it. Handle on the furosemide-free races in 2012 dropped 23 percent from the 2011 races, while the total number of horses participating in the five races then restricted to 2-year-olds dropped 22 percent.

Greg Avioli, the president and CEO of the TOC, said that the TOC supported the CHRB’s adoption of the regulation, noting that the regulation required his organization’s approval before any medication-based criteria could be applied to eligibility.

“If the tracks and horsemen agree, and it’s consistent with the rules and regulations of the California Horse Racing Board, then we don’t see a problem with it,” Avioli said.

When asked whether the TOC would support a ban on the race-day use of furosemide in Breeders’ Cup races, Avioli said he could not comment. “That’s a hypothetical, and I have not seen any specific rule that Breeders’ Cup wants.”

Avioli also said that the TOC has not had any discussions with the Breeders’ Cup over rules governing the Del Mar event, but he said the organization has had talks with Del Mar about tightening rules on the use of anabolic steroids to avoid an incident similar to last year, when the second-place finisher in the Sprint tested positive for a trace amount of stanozolol, an anabolic.

Avioli, who was hired by the TOC last September, was the CEO of the Breeders’ Cup for nearly five years from 2007 to 2011. The policy to ban race-day furosemide for the 2012 event was approved by the board in July 2011, three months after Avioli’s departure from the company.

Santa Anita and Golden Gate, two of California’s four major Thoroughbred tracks, are owned by The Stronach Group, the private company controlled by Frank Stronach. One of the sport’s most prominent owners and breeders, Stronach has expressed opposition to the race-day use of furosemide in the past, and in 2015, his Gulfstream Park in south Florida held three 2-year-old races in which race-day furosemide was banned.

Alan Balch, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers trade group, said that the CTT filed an objection to the rule prior to the vote on Thursday.

“We think it’s going to potentially lead to a lack of uniformity in racing medication rules,” Balch said. “Under a literal reading, the medication rules could change race to race, meet to meet, management to management. We don’t see how that’s in the best interests of racing.”