04/20/2012 3:27PM

Crist: On Lasix, practice what you preach

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By a single vote, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission last week failed to pass a resolution that would have banned the use of the anti-bleeding medication furosemide, commonly known as Lasix, in Kentucky racing. The 7-7 vote within the commission – a majority is required and a deadlock is a failure – surprised and frustrated proponents of the ban, who have vowed to renew their efforts in the months ahead.

In the meantime, here’s a suggestion for them: If they really believe that furosemide is bad for horses and racing, why don’t they just stop racing their horses on it? By failing to do so, the small but vocal group of owners and breeders who are crusading against the use of furosemide come off as being opportunistic at best and hypocritical at worst.

The furosemide debate in American racing has become downright bizarre. At one time, there was widespread uneasiness about the use of the diuretic because of its masking qualities. A generation ago, administering it could flush illegal substances out of a horse’s system and make them undetectable in post-race tests. Now, though, more precise testing and a greater reliance on plasma than urine has made that argument moot. Objections now focus on furosemide’s being part of a so-called “culture of drugs” that is allegedly diminishing public support for the sport.

“Perception is reality today,” said one of the Kentucky commissioners, explaining her vote for the ban. Others have argued that it doesn’t matter whether or not furosemide is a humane treatment that allows horses to race without choking on their own blood – if the public believes it has something to do with drugging up defenseless animals, it must be banned.

The problem with this approach, in addition to its inherent deceptiveness and insincerity, is that it proceeds from a highly questionable assumption – that if furosemide were banned tomorrow, people would suddenly believe racing is squeaky-clean and they would begin attending the races in greater numbers.

Perhaps some owners and breeders actually think this is true, but I have yet to meet a racetrack operator, horse trainer, or horseplayer who believes this. Banning furosemide will have no positive impact with civilians, who barely know what it is, and who will hardly be reassured or attracted to the game once it has been explained to them that racing has banned a medication that is used to keep horses from hemorrhaging during a race.

It is very tricky to crusade against a medication while simultaneously acknowledging its usefulness. The Jockey Club, which supports a ban, could not have made this clearer than it did in a presentation at its annual Round Table last August: It put up two slides, the first of which read “Lasix is good for horses,” followed by one reading “Lasix is not good for horse racing.”

I think they were trying to say that the drug has its efficacious properties but is being overused and has contributed to misperceptions about the sport. But by following up the “good for horses” declaration with a call for a ban, it seemed to be proposing that we stop doing something that is good for horses.

You can’t have it both ways. Most ban proponents continue to race all of their horses on furosemide, and over 95 percent of runners are treated with it on race day at every level of the sport, from claiming races in New Mexico to next month’s Kentucky Derby, where every entrant is expected to have an “L” for Lasix next to his name in the program. Some of those owners say they support a ban – so why not put some teeth in their position and impose one on themselves?

It just doesn’t cut it to say you want to ban a medication from racing but that you will continue to race your own horses on it until it becomes the law of the land that you may not. Every time a furosemide opponent races one of his own horses on the medication, he is tacitly approving of the drug and confirming its efficacy. Obviously furosemide is being overused when 95 percent of horses race on it and no one believes that even half that many horses have a legitimate bleeding problem. So who among the country’s most prominent owners races even less than half of his horses on furosemide?