11/16/2012 3:51PM

Hovdey: Instead of usual dive, California dips toe into Lasix rule change pool


The guinea pig, as every schoolchild knows, is not really a pig. It’s a rodent, and like many rodents throughout history the guinea pig has ended up on the wrong end of scientific experiments. No one is sure where the “guinea” in guinea pig came from, since they seem to be native to South America, but that didn’t keep them out of the lab.

For decades, as horse racing has evolved in these United States, the California wing of the industry has found itself in the role of guinea pig. The photo-finish strip camera was first used at Del Mar in 1937. That worked. The pick six made its debut at Hollywood Park in 1980. That really worked. In 1989 Santa Anita Park introduced plastic “turf grids” to a rebuilt, sand-based grass course with the idea of strengthening the roots. That took several years and a couple more tries before it worked out okay. Then, when the idea was proposed in 2006 that the state’s major tracks be required to install synthetic surfaces, the guinea pig in California said “why not?” The mandate is no longer in force.

Now the golden rodent is braced for another experiment. Another step toward exchange wagering was taken at the California Horse Racing Board meeting this week to keep the clock ticking toward what could be a considerable windfall for the companies providing such a service. The horizon is still relatively distant before wholesale exchange betting is in place, but an initial set of rules its working its way toward implementation, awaiting the blessings of horsemen’s organizations and unified acceptance among tracks.

Lou Raffetto, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, was heard on Steve Byk’s “At the Races” radio show Friday morning worrying that the existing model for sharing revenue from exchange betting put his constituency in a position of “getting a small percent of a small percent,” which would not be worth the trouble.

Raffetto also took pains on several occasions to describe the exchange betting revenue formulas involved as “very complicated,” and didn’t sound happy they were. This brought to mind the Paul Ryan interview on Fox News during which, when asked to explain the tax plan offered by Republican running-mate Mitt Romney, the vice presidential nominee replied, “It would take me too long to go through all the math.” In the end, 59.1 million voters had no problem with that, but 62.6 million did.

Hold still guinea pig. This won’t hurt at all.

It gives this reporter great pleasure, however, to report that on one hot issue California officials have allowed others to forge ahead into uncharted territory. Implementation of new rules regarding the administration of race-day Lasix at California tracks is still at least a couple months off, while such major jurisdictions as New York, Kentucky and Ontario, Canada, already have been restricting the administration of Lasix injections to veterinarians under the control of commissions and tracks, rather than being given by private practicing vets employed by owners and trainers.

Kentucky just began the new procedures in September. To date, there have been four instances reported of a horse being scratched either because it did not receive Lasix from the official vet as prescribed, or it was administered two injections by mistake. Rick Arthur, the CHRB’s equine medical director, as asked what safeguards would be in place to prevent such occurrences when California makes the change-over.

“They happen all the time anyway with private veterinarians,” Arthur said. “Sometimes we hear about it, sometimes we don’t. When we do, when the horse has missed a shot or been double-dosed, that horse would be a late scratch. But I’d be surprised if it happens more than once a month.”

Well, that’s comforting.

“There’s going to be 40,000 Lasix shots given in California in any given year,” Arthur noted. “Anything you do 40,000 times, there’s going to be an error. What you have to do is develop a system where you avoid that as much as possible.”

More than 30 years ago Arthur was among the pioneers in the study of exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage in racehorses, or EIPH.

“We gave it the name,” Arthur said. “But that was a long time ago. I actually had a young vet explain to me the other day just what bleeding was.”

What it is right now is a hot topic among an influential group of owners and breeders who would like to see American racing in line with other racing nations, where there are no medications allowed to be administered on the day a horse competes. Arthur is not on that bandwagon.

“There is reasonable justification to administer Lasix on race day,” he said. “There’s no question Lasix reduces EIPH. It doesn’t eliminate it, since 60 percent of horses still bleed after being administered Lasix. But it does reduce the amount of hemorrhage.

“With the new rules you won’t have the adjunct medications we have in California, such as premarin, which we don’t tell the public about,” Arthur continued. “About 50 percent of horses get that, even though there’s no scientific evidence that it has been shown to be efficacious in reducing EIPH, as Lasix has.

“The goal is to avoid the perception that something other than Lasix is being administered on race day, to get race-day medication down to one issue – Lasix,” Arthur added. “You take away all question of nefarious activity, which I believe is very rare, but we want to take the opportunity away and we want to take any suspicion away.”

The California rules, when implemented, will allow for Lasix to be given by a veterinarian either hired by the racing board, employed by the racetrack, or working for a company outsourced for the job. Arthur envisions that four or five vets at the major meets would be needed to cover the ground on a daily basis.

“In the end what you want is someone administering that Lasix shot who is disinterested in the outcome of the race,” he said. “I think it’s just a lot cleaner system for everybody, and it’s my hope that it will help quiet the debate on whether to use Lasix or not.”