Coalition of U.S. Tracks Announce Initiative to Phase Out Raceday Medication

A coalition of leading U.S. racetracks and racing organizations have announced a landmark initiative, phasing out the use of Furosemide (Lasix) beginning in 2-year-old-racing in January 2020 and eliminating the use of Lasix in black-type races held at their racetracks beginning the following year. The coalition includes all tracks owned and operated by Churchill Downs Inc., the New York Racing Association and The Stronach Group as well as Del Mar, Keeneland, Lone Star Park, Remington Park, Los Alamitos (Thoroughbred), Oaklawn Park and Tampa Bay Downs. Taken together, those tracks account for 86% of stakes races assigned listed or graded status in the United States. Breeders' Cup Ltd., the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA), the American Graded Stakes Committee of TOBA and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association (KTA) have also pledged their support to the initiative.

From Jan. 1, 2020, no 2-year-old will be permitted to be treated with Lasix within 24 hours of a race. The same restriction would be applied to horses entered for any stakes races at coalition tracks beginning in 2021, including the races comprising the Triple Crown.

Racetrack executives have expressed their nearly unanimous support for the undertaking.

“This is a progressive and unified approach to the subject of race day medication, achieving consistency with international standards for young horses and those that form the foundations of our breeding stock,” said David O'Rourke, president and chief executive officer of NYRA.

“This is a huge moment that signals a collective move to evolve this legacy sport,” said Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of The Stronach Group. “While there is still more work to be done, these reforms are a good start. This industry coalition has taken an important step forward toward a uniform policy and we are committed to focusing our attention and resources on how to make further improvements that directly prioritize equine health and safety. We applaud our industry partners and we look forward to continued collaboration.”

Added Bill Carstanjen, chief executive officer of CDI: “Over the past several years, we have met with numerous stakeholders to drive action on many of our sport's central issues. This is a significant and meaningful step to further harmonize American racing with international standards. We will continue to work with other stakeholders, including our horsemen and regulatory agencies, to fully implement this and other important reforms.”

Keeneland President and CEO Bill Thomason said, “This new program is an essential step as we look toward the long-term sustainability of U.S.-breds on the national and international stages. Protecting the integrity of our sport is core to our mission and is our collective responsibility to the industry.

Individual tracks participating in the coalition include: Aqueduct, Arlington International Racecourse, Belmont Park, Churchill Downs, Del Mar, Fair Grounds, Gulfstream Park, Gulfstream Park West, Keeneland, Laurel Park, Lone Star Park and Remington Park, Los Alamitos (Thoroughbred), Oaklawn Park, Pimlico, Presque Isle Downs, Saratoga Race Course and Tampa Bay Downs. The Stronach Group's Golden Gate Fields and Santa Anita Park will continue to run under the previously announced limitations to race-day medication.

Notable exceptions include Monmouth Park, Delaware Park and Parx Racing. Monmouth released a statement saying it would “continue to adhere to the position of the American Association of Equine Practitioners regarding the administration of race-day furosemide as the most effective treatment and preventative approach to controlling exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage in racehorses.”

“Until further scientific evidence proves otherwise, we believe the policy set forth by the AAEP regarding the race-day use of furosemide is in the best interest and welfare of the horses and their riders,” said Dennis Drazin, Chairman and CEO of Darby Development, LLC, operators of the racetrack.

Josh Rubinstein, president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, said that “we believe in support to help build consensus and progress around reforms, not just in California but throughout U.S racing.”

When asked if Del Mar plans to also mirror The Stronach Group's other Lasix reforms instituted at its California tracks–of halving the permitted amount of Lasix for the current crop of horses from 10 cc's to 5–Rubenstein replied that “we are still in discussions with stakeholders about that, and that includes some of the horsemen. Look, The Stronach Group was forced, just from a timing standpoint, to introduce a lot of these measures very quickly–that was just the situation at hand. We have the liberty of some more time, so, again, we're checking with stakeholders, including vets and trainers, and surveying them on how this has worked,” Rubenstein said. “After consultation with the [Thoroughbred Owners of California], we'll put a plan in place this summer.”

When asked the same question, Jack Liebau, vice president of the Los Alamitos Racing Association, said the matter is “up for discussion, and I'm sure it will be considered by other tracks in California, namely Los Alamitos and Del Mar and the county fairs in Northern California. There will be collaboration between those tracks and the California Horse Racing Board.”

As to how swiftly that policy might be implemented, Liebau said “it may come up with the licensing of those tracks.”

“I think it's a step in the right direction,” said Liebau, about the announced phase out nationally. “And I think a lot of the credit for bringing the people together goes to Craig Fravel of the Breeders' Cup and Martin Panza of New York. Without those two I don't think we would have gotten where we've gotten.”

From a broader perspective, The Jockey Club's Jim Gagliano offered his support for the initiative taken by the coalition while cautioning that progress will remain piecemeal without all-encompassing, nationwide medication reform.

“The Jockey Club has long held that horses should race only when they are free from the effects of medication,” said Gagliano. “This ban will ultimately affect only about 13% of races in the United States, but it's is a good first step, and we applaud the intent of the coalition members… But, unfortunately, this is still an incremental approach that will require concurrence of about 10 distinct racing commissions, with different rule adoption methods and constituencies. That is exactly why we continue to support the passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act, which would establish one unified system of medication regulation for the United States.”

Horsemen On Board?

The announcement was met with mixed reactions from horsemen's groups. New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NYTHA) president Joe Appelbaum stressed the importance of comprehensive reform to safety and horse welfare measures in the future.

“The recent breakdown crisis at Santa Anita has rightly heightened attention to health and safety issues. In solely focusing on Furosemide policy, the industry is missing an opportunity to enact comprehensive, far-reaching reforms that would directly benefit our horses by reducing the rate of equine fatalities,” Appelbaum said. “Furosemide has been a hot-button topic within horse racing for well over a decade, yet no one credibly believes that its use has an effect on breakdowns. Our trainers widely believe that Furosemide is an effective tool in combating Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH). While the outcome of this initiative won't be clear for many years, NYTHA represents the most talented horsemen in the world and we will work diligently to rise to the challenge of managing EIPH while maintaining the health and welfare of our horses.”

Appelbaum added, “The racetrack operators have stated that this is the first step in continuing cooperation on safety and welfare issues. We hope this is just the beginning of a collaborative conversation and challenge them to immediately adopt nationwide the recommendations contained in the 2012 New York Task Force Report on Race Horse Health and Safety and to provide funding and staff for an expedited implementation of the 2019 Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to Reduce Equine Fatalities.”

Alan Foreman, the chairman/chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (THA) and one of the drafters of the aforementioned Mid-Atlantic Plan, reaffirmed the THA's stance on the use of Lasix as an effective treatment for EIPH.

“We've had a long-standing policy that absent an effective treatment for EIPH, we support and endorse the strict regulatory protocols for the use of Lasix in the horse. That has not changed,” Foreman said. “The current regulatory regime that we have for the use of medications in racing is the most uniform rule we have in the industry. Everybody uses it. Everybody abides by it. The bettors like it. It's in the best interest of the horse from a health and welfare standpoint.”

While Foreman said the THA is open to discussion with industry constituents about pressing issues such as medication reform, he classified the most recent sweeping changes to Lasix policy as “a diversion from what should be our primary goal, and that's determining the cause or causes of these breakdowns.”

The issue of reconciling decisions made by individual racetrack ownership groups with the wishes of horsemen could become a more heated topic of discussion in the future, according to Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) president Ed Martin.

“If you wish to make a unilateral decision, the question for the regulator is 'Can a racetrack make wholesale changes to the promulgated regulatory medication policy absent an agreement with the horsemen, hence formal commission approval?' I would think not, but that may not preclude an entity from contending this,” speculated Martin, who added that the logistics of racing commission-enforced drug testing for different races at a given racetrack could prove to be troublesome.

“I can't speak for the tracks for whether they've had discussions with their effective commissions…I'm not sure that this becomes even possible in Florida because the [pari-mutuel] division is governed by a statute that says their rules must be based on the ARCI model rules. And the model rules, as currently [written], just do not permit this,” added Martin.

Echoing sentiments he told TDN Wednesday, National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association CEO Eric Hamelback said in a statement that a Lasix ban doesn't constitute safety reform.

“I have no doubt that everyone in horse racing has a shared goal of keeping our human and equine performers safe and healthy,” Hamelback said. “However, I am disturbed and mystified by the announced initiative by the coalition of racetracks to phase out the use of the anti-bleeder medication furosemide in all 2-year-olds racing at their tracks in 2020 and all stakes races in 2021 … Each catastrophic injury faced at the racetrack is devastating to each and every one of us in the industry. But we also know there are many varied and nuanced conditions and circumstances which cause these tragedies. But the research is clear: Lasix is not a factor. Horses will continue to have injuries without race-day administration of Lasix. However, what also will happen is more horses will experience exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging, which is systemic not only in Thoroughbreds but equines in general. Lasix has been proven to be effective and preventing or reducing the severity of EIPH for well over 30 years.”

New Stakes Policies

The question of how black-type races will be adjudicated going forward was also of interest in the wake of the announcement. For example, the proposal raises the question as to whether or not sales catalogues might ultimately offer designations distinguishing which black-type races were run with or without Lasix. “Any changes in sales catalogues in North America would need to be considered by the North American International Catalogue Standards Committee at the appropriate time,” said Carl Hamilton, chairman of the committee.

Everett Dobson, chairman of the Graded Stakes Committee, offered, “For now, we will not be treating the races any differently, whether they allow Lasix or not. Under our current rules, there is a possibility we will consider adopting a rule as the graded stakes committee that would require any graded races be run without any race-day medication. That is not the rule today, but we have come out in support of this initiative of the tracks and we will consider that rule change down the road. Right now, all we are saying is there is a possibility we will consider this in the future, without giving any time tables on it. In terms of the logistics of it, it would be an action by the committee itself. We've amended and adopted rules in the past, and that is what it takes.”

Worldwide Reach

Thursday's announcement quickly spread across the worldwide racing industry, drawing praise from afar.

“France Galop has always been very supportive of the IFHA's efforts to harmonize the racing rules across the globe, so we can only applaud the decision taken by major U.S. racetracks to phase out the use of Lasix,” said Olivier Delloye, CEO of France Galop. “It is a major and positive move–all the more so as those racetracks host the majority of Graded stakes in the U.S.”

While the announcement brings the United States racing industry closer in line with standards adopted through nearly all other major worldwide jurisdictions, Martin emphasized that the implications of such a sweeping change must be carefully considered.

“We advise that any change of policy be science-based,” Martin said. “And I think the burden of justification is going to be on the applicants for the policy change. I'm not saying it won't fly or it will fly. But it would have been better if there had been significant discussions with the various horsemen's groups as well as the regulatory agencies in trying to get everybody to understand what the justification is other than preferring a European standard over others.”

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