Updated on 04/17/2012 8:14AM

Lasix ban fails in Kentucky commission

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – A regulation that would phase out the raceday use of the anti-bleeding medication furosemide in Kentucky over the next three years failed by the slimmest of margins on Monday when the 14-member Kentucky Horse Racing Commission split the vote, causing the measure’s defeat.

With seven members in support and seven in opposition – including the chairman of the Breeders’ Cup, which will this year prohibit the use of furosemide before its races for 2-year-olds – the measure became simultaneously the first serious effort by a U.S. racing jurisdiction to phase out raceday use of the drug and the first to fail. The measure earlier on Monday was recommended by a committee of the racing commission by a 4-1 vote, with one member absent.

The 7-7 vote on the regulation was emblematic of the rupture within the industry over raceday furosemide, a diuretic that is commonly known by the trade names Lasix or Salix. For the past year, several high-profile groups, including the Jockey Club, Breeders’ Cup, and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, have called for a ban on raceday use of the drug, but the groups have never been able to forge a consensus with the industry at large against the steadfast opposition of most trainers and many owners.

The measure introduced on Monday would have banned 2-year-olds from receiving raceday furosemide beginning in 2013. The ban would have been extended to 3-year-olds and all stakes races in 2014, and apply to all races in 2015.

The rule also included a provision – added on Monday morning – that would have allowed the commission to reconsider the rule as of Sept. 1, 2013. Supporters of the new rule said that the provision was added so the state could consider abandoning the new rules if other states did not pass similar measures that would protect Kentucky from a mass exodus of horses leaving to take advantage of more liberal racing rules in neighboring states.

Commissioners largely voted as they were expected to vote, with one exception: Tom Ludt, the chairman of Breeders’ Cup, who voted against the measure. Last year, Breeders’ Cup passed a measure to ban the use of raceday furosemide in the five races of its 15-race event restricted to 2-year-olds, a ban that is supposed to be expanded to all 15 races in 2013.

Ludt noted his Breeders’ Cup affiliation when making remarks before the vote. He also said, however, that he had another obligation when voting as the president of Vinery, a racing and breeding operation in Kentucky that runs a large number of horses in the state. Ludt then unsuccessfully pushed for an amendment to the measure that would ban raceday furosemide for all stakes races in Kentucky, but the amendment was easily defeated.

Supporters called for the measure as a way to spur other racing states to ban the raceday use of the drug, which reduces capillary pressure and has been proven scientifically to mitigate the effects of bleeding in the lungs, a condition suffered by horses when exercising strenuously. But opponents cautioned that passage of the regulation did not guarantee that any other major racing states would follow Kentucky’s lead, presenting the prospect that Kentucky racing would suffer at the expense of other states.

Other commissioners made more pointed remarks. One, Burr Travis, a lawyer in upstate Kentucky who runs a small string of horses, said that he would cease racing in Kentucky if the measure was passed, calling it unfair to small operators who feel the drug is necessary to administer to horses who suffered the effects of bleeding.

“If this passes, we will not be at Keeneland next year,” Travis said.

Another opponent, Frank Jones, outlined a litany of economic effects of an exodus of horses from Kentucky if the rule passed, and he echoed the private remarks of many in opposition when he said he found it "disappointing" how the measure had been introduced. The issue of banning raceday furosemide had not been discussed in a public forum in Kentucky since December, and many commissioners said they had no idea that a ban would be on the agenda at the Monday meeting until last Thursday night, when the agenda was sent out via e-mail.

“The timing and the lack of discussion about this proposal is disappointing,” said Jones, whose opinion is one of the most highly valued on the panel.

Supporters countered that Kentucky would be making a mistake by not taking the lead on the issue of raceday drugs, which has been a lightning rod for critics of the sport. Robert Beck, the chairman of the commission, said just before calling for a vote that racing needed to align itself with the foreign racing jurisdictions that ban the drug.

“Isn’t it a little arrogant of us to think we’re the only ones in the world who are correct?” Beck said.

Another of the measure's supporters, Bill Casner, the owner of WinStar Farm, which breeds, sells, and races horses in jurisdictions across the country, said that he had been running his 2-year-olds without raceday furosemide for two years, and that he could not find any drawback to forgoing the use of the drug, citing the records of the horses who ran (he did say that several of those horses bled). Speaking as a hand-picked representative of several Kentucky breeders at the meeting - including the Hancock family of Claiborne Farm - he called fears about a prohibition on the raceday use of the drug overblown.

"I do not think the sky has fallen," Casner said. "It hasn't fallen in my world. In fact, I think I've gained a competitive advantage."

Opponents countered that the regulations do not force any trainer or owner to administer the drug to their horses. Tom Conway, a horse owner in Kentucky who is the father of the state's attorney general, said that current rules provide for the administration of the drug in a "highly regulated, monitored fashion" and said disallowing the use of raceday furosemide would be "inhumane" for horses who suffer heavy bleeding episodes.

Conway's point echoes a rallying cry adopted by many horsemen who support the raceday use of the drug, and those supporters have become emboldened by scientific presentations at various hearings and conferences held over the past year regarding the effects of furosemide on bleeding. In large part, those studies have concluded that horses suffer from bleeding as a result of genetic conditions that evolved in the species millions of years ago and because of the vast volumes of blood pumped at high pressure through a horse's lungs during exercise. Other studies have concluded that furosemide has been proven to mitigate those effects and prevent long-term damage to lung tissue.

Those same studies, however, have said that only a small fraction of horses suffer serious bleeding episodes, suggesting that many horses are receiving the drug to treat a malady that may have only insignificant impacts on their health or performance. In jurisdictions that prohibit the raceday use of the drug, only a small percentage are retired because of chronic bleeding episodes, supporters of a ban have said.

Dale Romans, a Kentucky-based trainer who also owns and breeds horses in Kentucky, was allowed to make comments to the commission by chairman Beck after he had been denied an opportunity to speak at the earlier committee meeting. During his remarks, he said that it was illogical to simultaneously accept the results of the scientific studies and then ban horses from receiving the drug on raceday.

"Obviously, no one thinks Lasix is hurting the horse, since you're going to let us use it for training," Romans said. "Instead you're going to ban us from using the drug on the one day that a horse most needs it."

Supporters of a ban on the raceday use of the drug have largely avoided attacking the issue on the grounds that the drug does not mitigate the effects of bleeding, but they have contended that the drug is overused and that it may have performance-enhancing effects. In addition, supporters of a ban have said that use of the drug opens the sport up to criticism that racing results are being affected by "chemical manipulation" on the sport's backstretches, as commissioner Betsy Lavin said during a discussion of the rule change at the committee level. Lavin, a breeder and owner who is the wife of a veterinarian, voted for the phase out during both the committee and commission meetings.

Lavin also said that the rule's Sept 1, 2013, escape clause would allow the state to evaluate any negative effects of the ban on the state's population of 2-year-olds and on its racing circuit.

"If it doesn't work, and if we are flying alone, then we have that provision as a parachute," Lavin said.

But many opponents were not satisfied that Kentucky should act without commitments from other racing commissions. Foster Northrup, a commissioner who is a racetrack practitioner, voted against the proposal, saying that he is "for the horse, and the horse must come first," citing the scientific studies. But he also indicated that he could be convinced to support a phase-out if the industry reached a national consensus.

"It has to be on a national scale," Northrup said. "It can't be Kentucky taking this chance, taking this risk, all alone. I am going to vote for what's best for Kentucky racing. So I'm against this because I'm for Kentucky racing."