By a tight 7-5 margin, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission on Wednesday approved a proposal to phase out the use of raceday furosemide, commonly known as Lasix, in graded and listed black-type events in the state beginning with the 2-year-old crop of 2014. Commissioner Tom Ludt abstained, while two other commissioners, Michael Pitino and Dr. Jerry Yon, were not present.
Kentucky becomes the first major racing jurisdiction to ban Lasix under any context in North America. The Breeders' Cup Ltd., of which Ludt is chairman, has banned Lasix for its juvenile races in 2013 and for all its races beginning in 2014. A previous proposal by the KHRC would have seen the ban implemented beginning in 2013, but it issued a revised proposal Tuesday pushing it back by one year. The ban would extend to 3-year-olds in 2015 and all races in 2016. The ban effects Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds, but not Standardbreds, as that industry does not have listed and graded stakes. Horses will still be able to train on Lasix, but not be allowed to be treated with Lasix within 24 hours of competing. The penalty for a violation is loss of any purse-money won.
The vote concludes months of back and forth between those who feel that banning Lasix will help the sport attract new fans, and those who feel that the best interests of the horse are being put behind public relations.
"Change is tough," admitted KHRC Chairman Robert Beck, Jr., who voted in favor of the ban. "But I found a quote that was appropriate for this situation--'If you don't like the change, you're going to like the irrelevance even less.' We have to change so we can grow our business. This is a realistic change that addresses raceday medication, which is something the general public just finds abhorrent."
The other commissioners who voted in favor of the measure were Edward "Ned" Bonnie, Tracy Farmer, Wade Houston, Sr., Alan Leavitt, Elizabeth Lavin, and John Phillips. Voting against it were Thomas Conway, Frank Jones, Franklin S. King, Jr., Dr. Foster Northrup, and Burr Travis, Jr.
"To me, this isn't about Lasix," said Ludt prior to his abstention vote. "I'm not here to debate Lasix. It's about whether we want to lead, or want to follow. Most people think I have to do something because of my position with the Breeders' Cup. Well, this isn't a Breeders' Cup vote. The Breeders' Cup gets away with what it wants to because it's self-funded. So I can't put that Breeders' Cup hat on. The economics concern me, and I'm very conflicted. To me, the one thing I hear, and I hear it a lot, is that [we need] uniformity. This country needs uniformity more than anything in the world. So the question is, does Kentucky lead? It's the one race I'm not sure I want to lead. I'm concerned we're going to lead in an area where we don't have the support. I wouldn't want to bet on how many states in the next 60 days are going to jump on this bandwagon. I've got no confidence, and I wanted to."
Kentucky's lead in banning Lasix was raised several times yesterday by those who fear the state will become an "island" on the national racing scene. "We are creating another competitive disadvantage for Kentucky racing," said Tom Conway, who is against the ban. "This is a very risky thing we're doing. Any valuable horse that needs Lasix to run, anything other than a claimer, will not be staying in Kentucky to race. We're already at a disadvantage. Do you think trainers are licking their chops to come to Kentucky to race for our purse structure? We already have terrible purses and short fields." He added, "When New York sees the benefits that flow to them from this action, they're not going to create a second island."
Others, however, contended that banning Lasix will allow the sport to convert new fans and thus drive up attendance and handle. "Thirty years ago, when I represented the HBPA in Ohio, I actually advocated for the use of Lasix," said new commissioner John Phillips of Darby Dan Farm. "Because largely I thought we could frame the argument to the public and to the non-industry media, and to the international markets. But after 30 years of listening to the discussion, after 30 years of being out in the public and listening to those markets, I don't think I was correct in that assessment. I don't think we can frame the issue. The non-racing media has the attention span of a flash bulb, and the public maybe shorter than that. I think what we've done is driven a wedge between our sport and the public."
The proposal still needs to be approved by the state government. Beck said that legislative approval probably wouldn't come until the middle of 2013, and rather than enacting the change mid-year, the commission preferred to push back the ban until 2014.
Phillips and several other commissioners emphasized the need for the KHRC to remain "agile" in the coming months to be able to respond to any action--or inaction--by other states.