08/24/2009 12:00AM

Lasix rules unlikely to change

The Jockey Club
Louis Romanet, chairman of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, called on the racing industry to ban Lasix for horses participating in North American stakes races by 2012.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The North American racing industry has no plans to tighten regulations on the ubiquitous raceday use of the diuretic Lasix, racing officials said Monday, one day after a top European regulator said that international efforts to standardize drug rules among all major racing countries would fail without a North American repeal of its rules for the drug.

The reluctance by the North American racing industry to fall in line with the rest of the racing world on the use of Lasix, or furosemide, illustrates the deep divide among racing jurisdictions on the proper role of raceday medications in the sport. The United States and Canada are the only major racing jurisdictions in the world that allow trainers to administer Lasix to horses on raceday, and racing officials on each side of the Atlantic have so far shown no enthusiasm for changing their rules to suit the other.

The debate over the use of Lasix was rekindled Sunday at the Jockey Club Round Table on Matters Pertaining to Racing in Saratoga Springs when Louis Romanet, chairman of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, called on the racing industry to ban Lasix for horses participating in North American stakes races by 2012. The IFHA is currently drafting rules that would establish international threshold levels for prohibited medications in post-race urine and blood samples, and Romanet contended that the raceday use of Lasix in North America would require the adoption of two sets of rules because of the drug's potential to dilute the concentration of prohibited drugs in urine samples.

The potential for Lasix to complicate post-race testing procedures is certainly a concern to European racing officials interested in uniting the world under one regulatory framework, as it is to U.S. racing officials who wrestle with the same issues while attempting to get uniform threshold levels established in all 38 U.S. racing states. However, Romanet's comments - and the reaction to them among U.S. racing officials who appeared to be more ruffled by his tone than his message - also underlined the deeply entrenched positions held by supporters and critics of Lasix use on each side of the Atlantic, a division that is more philosophical than technical.

Supporters of Lasix - which include the U.S. veterinary community and nearly every trainer in the country - contend that that raceday use of the drug allows a horse to run to his full potential and that it is borderline cruel to deny the drug to a horse that suffers from bleeding in the lungs. The European and Asian racing communities do not deny that Lasix may alleviate bleeding, but they also contend that the drug enhances performance and that any short-term good wreaks havoc with the breed over the long term by propping up chronic bleeders' race records and giving breeders incentives to propagate bleeders' genes.

Six months ago, the European racing community had reason to be optimistic about the United States coming over to its point of view. Stung by criticism over the sport's lack of rules regulating the use of anabolic steroids, U.S. racing regulators over the past year have been tightening rules on medication use in an attempt to counter concern in the public arena over illegal drug use in all sports. In addition, North American racing interests also had agreed to fund a landmark study to determine whether Lasix did what it was supposed to do, and rumors began cropping up early in 2009 that the findings would contradict the anecdotal evidence cited by the drug's supporters.

If the rumors were true, the case for liberal Lasix use in the United States would fall apart, especially when coupled with data showing that U.S. racehorses continue to make fewer and fewer starts each year, a phenomenon that Lasix use was supposed to arrest when the drug began to be legalized in the 1970s. If the United States had no reason to allow Lasix anymore, then the Europeans and the United States could start working together to adopt an international framework in which drug rules and testing procedures would be identical from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Encouraged by the possibility that the United States might jump on board, the IFHA began to move forward on its international framework.

However, the rumors were well off base. In fact, the study, released in late June, purported to show that horses administered Lasix suffered fewer incidents of bleeding and that prerace Lasix administrations significantly reduced the severity of bleeding compared to horses that were administered saline solutions.

Not surprisingly, the results have U.S. racing officials wondering what's holding Europe back.

"Diplomatically, I would say that a re-evaluation by everyone, including Europe, is needed," said Ed Martin, executive director of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which communicates with racing jurisdictions in the United States over model rules, on Monday. "With all fair deference to Mr. Romanet, the study raises questions that [the IFHA] should be looking to answer."

Martin and other racing officials said Monday that no one in the United States had been seriously considering a rollback in Lasix rules prior to Romanet appearing Sunday at the round table, and that any serious discussion about the issue in light of the study's release seemed superfluous, at best. Still, as in politics, vocal minorities have been known to wield enormous power in racing, and Romanet appeared to be appealing to that minority by asking officials to ban the raceday use of the drug in graded stakes races, the high-profile contests that are used to determine which horses are the best in the breed.

In the United States, stakes races are assigned grades by a committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. Twice in the past 12 months, the committee has adopted rules that would make stakes races ineligible for grades based on rules of racing at the tracks at which the races were held (once to ensure a prohibition on certain horseshoes and again to ensure that the race was run under rules regulating anabolic steroid use). Romanet hinted that TOBA could use the same tactic to force a rule change on Lasix.

But Dan Metzger, executive director of TOBA, said Monday that the stakes committee has not once discussed the possibility of prohibiting Lasix as a condition of grading races. In addition, he said that the committee also has not discussed the possibility of having that discussion unless regulators and horsemen suddenly come to an unlikely consensus on banning the raceday use of the drug in all races.

"The graded stakes committee takes its responsibility very seriously," Metzger said. "It recognizes its influence on racing and breeding, and any change to the conditions or requirements for grading races is arrived at very, very deliberately. That's the precedent, and we don't anticipate straying from that precedent."