08/22/2009 11:00PM

Official calls for U.S. to ban Lasix in stakes


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Medication rules in the U.S. are out of step with the rest of the racing world and will prevent the country from participating in an international effort to standardize drug rules worldwide, the top official of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities said at the Jockey Club Round Table on Matters Pertaining to Racing on Sunday.

Louis Romanet, the chairman of the IFHA, sharply criticized the raceday use of the diuretic furosemide - known as Lasix - and the liberal use of non-steroidal inflammatory drugs in the U.S. as part of his keynote address at the Round Table, which focused this year on medication and safety issues in racing. During his remarks, Romanet gave no indication that foreign countries would consider legalizing the use of Lasix, and he also said that unless the U.S. bans the race-day administration of the drug, international efforts to include the country in an ongoing process to standardize rules will fail.

"You can do it if you want to do it," Romanet said, as he asked the U.S. to ban the use of Lasix in all black-type races by 2012.

Though no other major racing country permits its use, furosemide is legal to administer on race day in every jurisdiction in the U.S., and it is currently administered to virtually every horse that starts in a U.S. race. The drug is used to treat exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging, the clinical term to refer to bleeding in the lungs while racing.

Though Romanet's comments were met with vigorous applause and several vocal calls of support from some corners of the conference room at the Gideon Putnam Hotel, where the Round Table was held, the U.S. racing industry is unlikely to embrace any effort to ban Lasix's race-day use, even in limited circumstances such as stakes races, especially in light of the release of a study earlier this year that purported to show that the drug effectively treats the severity of bleeding under actual racing conditions. The study was funded by North American racing interests.

Prior to Romanet speaking, Dr. Scott Palmer, the chairman of the American Association of Equine Practitioners' Racing Committee, said during a presentation that the AAEP unequivocally supports the race-day use of Lasix, citing the study s results. And, in addition to being ingrained in the training regimens of nearly every Thoroughbred trainer in the country, all major horsemen's organizations continue to support the race-day use of Lasix, a position that has only hardened since the release of the study.

In his remarks, Romanet said that the race-day use of Lasix cannot be justified under the arguments that were used to advance its legalization in the 1970s, citing statistics showing that the average number of starts per year for a racehorse in the U.S. has declined from 11.31 in 1960 to 6.2 in 2008. As Lasix use began to be liberalized in the U.S., most supporters of the drug argued that it would allow horses to race more often and stem the already accelerating decline in number of average starts.

Romanet also said that the use of Lasix interferes with worldwide efforts to establish threshold levels for therapeutic medications in post-race drug tests by diluting the concentration of medications in urine samples, thereby requiring that there be different standards for the U.S. and the rest of the world. The IFHA is currently attempting to establish uniform threshold levels for all member countries as a recognition of the increasing sensitivity and technological sophistication of post-race tests.

Although Lasix use will likely remain a unbridgeable gap between the U.S. and the rest of the racing world, participants at the Round Table appeared to be willing to tighten U.S. regulations on the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications such as phenylbutazone, banamine, and flunixin by prohibiting the administration of the drugs within 48 hours of a race, as indicated by Stuart Janney, the chairman of The Jockey Club's Thoroughbred Safety Committee, in his remarks. Janney and Palmer both said that regulatory veterinarians have begun to criticize the use of the drugs within 48 hours of a race for interfering in the evaluation of horses during pre-race examinations, citing the ability of the drugs to mask pain and cover up lameness. Although not all jurisdictions allow for use of painkillers with 48 hours of a race, many major racing states allow horsemen to administer the drugs within 24 hours of a race.

Palmer and Joe Gorajec, the executive director of the Indiana Horse Racing Commission, both cited efforts currently underway in the U.S. to raise support for an interstate racing compact that could streamline the adoption of model rules in racing jurisdictions. The compact, which has been endorsed by The Jockey Club and the Association of Racing Commissioners International, would create an umbrella organization among the racing states that joined the compact by allowing the states to adopt rules en masse, instead of individually. Draft legislation for the compact has already been written in New York.

In addition, Gorajec called on regulators to immediately ban the use of so-called adjunct bleeder medications-- such as aminocaproic acid and conjugated estrogens, which have been legalized recently in several major racing states. Gorajec said that racing commissions have authorized the use of the medications under pressure from horsemen and veterinarians without properly studying the efficacy or side effects of their use.

"Don't inject first and ask questions later," Gorajec said.

The jumble of claims at the Round Table about drug use and the industry's proper response to overhauling its current medication rules underlined the difficulty the U.S. racing industry is facing as it attempts to formulate a set of rules that are both meaningful and consistent with the demands of the sport's fans, participants, and the general public. Many other sports are also going through similar processes because of recent doping scandals and public outrage over the efforts by those sports to combat illegal drug use.

Steve Crist, the chairman and publisher of Daily Racing Form, cited the public concerns over racing's medication policies through the responses he received after asking racing fans to post comments on his blog regarding their opinions of drugs in racing. The request received more than 550 responses, Crist said, which led him to conclude that "there's a huge difference between perception and reality." The solution, according to Crist, is to address inconsistencies in the rules and create regulations that allow enforcement agencies such as racing commissions to differentiate between minor violations like drug overages and deliberate attempts to cheat.

"Of course we have a problem with drugs in racing," Crist said. "We probably always have, and perhaps we always will. But we're not going about rooting it out the right way. And in failing to do so, we're both worsening the perception and failing to address the reality of the problem."