09/22/2011 12:37PM

Lasix battle lines drawn between TOBA, horsemen


The Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association is lining up allies and pressing its effort to get state racing commissions to ban the race-day use of the anti-bleeding medication furosemide in 2-year-old races next year, but there are significant hurdles.

TOBA has already begun discussing the proposal with racing commissions in the five states where graded stakes for 2-year-olds are held. Lined up behind TOBA, at least philosophically, are the Jockey Club, the Breeders’ Cup, and the Stronach Group, the private company that owns Santa Anita in California and Gulfstream in Florida, among other tracks.

Horsemen’s groups remain united in opposition to the proposal. The horsemen’s position will complicate efforts to pass rules that would be in effect for 2012 even when factoring in the additional time afforded by the 2-year-old racing calendar, which does not start until April.

Already, a number of officials for racing commissions in the six states that TOBA has targeted have said the consideration of a rule banning furosemide on race day, even on a limited, experimental basis, would be a complex and divisive undertaking requiring careful study. They cited not only opposition to the change but also a recent Jockey Club-funded scientific study that indicated furosemide is effective in reducing the severity and frequency of bleeding episodes in horses.

“It’s pretty clear the industry is divided on the race-day use of furosemide,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, the equine medical director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. “And when you are making a rule, you are going through the legislative process, you are making a law, you are taking everyone’s position into consideration. That process trumps any external pressure.”

The effort to reform the rules is an outgrowth of a decision by the American Graded Stakes Committee last August to rescind the grade of any 2-year-old stakes race in 2012 that allows horses to be treated with a race-day injection of furosemide. A diuretic commonly known as Lasix or Salix, furosemide is administered to approximately 95 percent of all North American racehorses to treat bleeding in the lungs. TOBA is the administrator of the American Graded Stakes Committee, which assigns grades to more than 450 stakes races a year.

The committee approved the rule several weeks after the Breeders’ Cup announced it would ban the use of furosemide in the five races of its season-ending event restricted to 2-year-olds beginning in 2012, when the event is going to be held at Santa Anita Park in California. The Breeders’ Cup said it would ban race-day furosemide for all 15 of its races in 2013, when the event is expected to be run in New York or Kentucky. California, Kentucky, and New York play host to most of graded stakes races for juveniles. The other states are New Jersey, Illinois, and Louisiana.

The pursuit of the ban has increasingly angered some horsemen, who contend the results of the Jockey Club study that were announced two years ago provided conclusive scientific support to allow furosemide on race day. Citing other studies that have said up to 80 percent of horses will show some evidence of bleeding in the lungs after strenuous exercise, the president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, Rick Violette, has begun characterizing the effort to ban furosemide as “borderline animal cruelty,” a loaded term that has come to symbolize the hardening position of horsemen. Violette said New York horsemen were prepared to file a lawsuit that would prevent New York from enforcing a ban on furosemide, a suit that could tie up the effort for years.

“I would be more than happy to walk in front of a judge who doesn’t know an ear from a tail and put the science in front of him to show the recent and historical data on Lasix,” Violette said recently. “It is black and white, as opposed to the rhetoric on the other side. Horses bleed. That is a fact.”

Jim Gagliano, the president and chief operating officer of the Jockey Club, would not comment when asked if the Jockey Club would press ahead without the support of horsemen, but he said that he was "encouraged that a great many individual horsemen - and owners and breeders - support a change in the sport's current race-day medication policy." Gagliano also said that Jockey Club officials have been meeting with TOBA officials to determine how to put the issue in front of racing commissions, and he said the Jockey Club intends to “emphasize that the administration of a performance-enhancing medication on raceday compromises the image, integrity, and future of our sport.”

If supporters of furosemide reform are unable to convince state commissions to modify their rules, the effort will shift to convincing racetracks to pass so-called house rules that would restrict furosemide use as a condition of entry, according to officials involved in the effort. House rules have occasionally been used to enforce medication reforms, including the effort to ban milkshakes, blood-doping agents, and anabolic steroids, as a way to bridge the gap between a consensus to ban the substances and the formal approval of rules.

But that effort could run into problems. Passage of a house rule would not address existing regulations in all states that are triggered when horses are taken off furosemide and put back on the medication. The rules require layoffs for horses that go on and off the drug, including a one-year ban for a horse that goes on and off three times. Such rules would limit subsequent racing options for trainers and owners of a horse who is taken off furosemide to comply with a house rule.

“We obviously haven’t discussed that in any detail yet,” said Ed Martin, the president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International. “But that is a real big problem.”

If some racetracks pass house rules and others do not, horsemen could avoid the ban by shipping to other tracks, giving some tracks a competitive edge in attracting horses. House rules could also antagonize trainers, who control the raw material that produces the main revenue stream for racetracks.

As a result, most tracks are remaining neutral. Officials for Churchill Downs, which owns tracks in three of the targeted states, Kentucky, Illinois, and Louisiana, declined to comment on questions regarding furosemide. Even the racetracks that support furosemide reform would not commit to a house rule banning the drug.

“It would be premature to comment on that,” said Greg Avioli, the chief executive of the Stronach Group, whose owner, Frank Stronach, sent letters to racing commissions earlier this year asking them to ban race-day furosemide. “What we want to do is work in a collaborative fashion with the regulators and the racing constituencies in the states where we do business.”

Marty Maline, the executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said the TOBA decision to rescind grades for stakes races could backfire if the association goes through with its proposal, contending that racetracks or other groups might implement their own grading system.

“Horsemen are prepared throughout the country to fight this,” Maline said. “Obviously, grading is important, but it’s not so important that we can’t come up with another way of determining what races are graded.”

Dan Metzger, the president of TOBA, said the obstacles could be overcome.

“We laid out a timetable, and we’ll continue to build support to comply with that timetable,” Metzger said. “If it looks like it can’t get done one way, we’ll adjust accordingly. This is a gradual process.”