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‘Old World’ Commends Brave New One on Lasix

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By Chris McGrath

The landmark prohibition of raceday Lasix, projected by a coalition of major American racetracks on Thursday, is being received with unsurprising warmth by European horsemen, who have long complained about trans-Atlantic disparities in the regulation of medication. Less predictable, perhaps, is a disposition among the more knowledgeable to give the American industry time and space to overcome what they recognise as perfectly legitimate anxieties about adjusting to a different way of doing things.

Official reaction from European regulatory bodies has been carefully bland, perhaps eager to avoid the kind of triumphalism or aggression that might irritate American stakeholders approaching such a sensitive crossroads. France Galop, responding in yesterday’s TDN, had for instance simply applauded “a major and positive move” that could nourish the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities’ agenda of harmonisation. Robin Mounsey of the British Horseracing Authority was still more understated. “We welcome the news from the U.S. that some racecourses have banned the use of Lasix,” he noted on Friday. “It has long been the policy in Britain, in the interests of the welfare of our horses and of fair competition, that no prohibited substances should be present in a horse’s system on raceday, and only normal feed and water can be given on the day of the race.”

For a perspective as uninhibited as it is exceptionally informed, then, let’s turn to Des Leadon–the distinguished Irish veterinarian whose diverse roles in the Thoroughbred industry have incidentally afforded him an intimate knowledge of the American racing environment. For many years he has supervised the travel of elite European racehorses to the Breeders’ Cup, whose trainers have often felt obliged to administer Lasix to achieve a level playing field. But Leadon’s expertise has also been recognised by his peers in the U.S., having served as International Director of the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

And, while describing Thursday’s news as “hugely” welcome, Leadon counselled Europeans to be patient. Commending the strategy of only applying the Lasix ban to juveniles next year, before extending to black-type racing in 2021, he said: “I think it’s very good they’re not trying to run before they walk. To go for evolution rather than revolution is much more sensible. Because to be fair, there are parts of the U.S. where they have very good reasons for taking a medicated approach to racing. In some of the environments where they both train and race, there would otherwise be none at all. So if you were to take too broad a brush to this issue, you would probably do as much damage as good. This ‘softly, softly’ approach should be warmly welcomed by everybody in racing and breeding worldwide–and with sympathy too. By phasing it in, everybody can get used to the changed circumstances and nobody gets put out of business or hurt as a result.”

Some American trainers have always protested Lasix to be sooner about welfare than boosting performance. While there is a limit to how far Leadon will concede that claim, Europeans were not to be judgemental.

“We now know that the dynamics of Lasix are much more complicated than we ever thought,” he said. “These include depletion of electrolyte stores, in a way we hadn’t realised before, making post-Lasix administration of electrolytes something that has to be increasingly factored into all this thinking. Whatever its effects on the lungs, of course, taking weight off a horse going into a race is obviously going to have an influence in an industry in which the difference between success and failure is a short head.

“But at the same time I think sometimes we get very ‘holier-than-thou’ on this side of the Atlantic and cheerfully overlook the fact that a significant number of our racehorses, while they don’t race on Lasix, are trained on it. So there needs to be some coherent thinking about all this; and the more dialogue there can be, the better.”

Another seasoned voice is that of John Oxx, who himself trained as a veterinarian before embarking on a training career crowned by one of the great European Thoroughbreds of recent times in Sea The Stars (Ire) (Cape Cross {Ire}). Though Oxx ran Ridgewood Pearl (GB) (Indian Ridge {Ire}) without Lasix when she won the GI Breeders’ Cup Mile in 1995, he, too, urged Europeans to make sure they understood the challenges facing American trainers before planting any flags on the moral high ground.

“You have to be careful sitting over here and commenting, because obviously it’s going to be difficult for trainers to adapt to something so different, and that will I suppose cause them problems with certain horses,” he said.

Acknowledging that some American trainers would even consider it inhumane not to give certain horses Lasix, Oxx said: “I can see why they’d say that–and it’s not without some validity. I’ve had horses here that might bleed occasionally, but it was manageable. But then when we’ve sent them to the States, even with Lasix, they couldn’t stop them bleeding. I think a lot of it is to do with a different climatic situation: hot and humid temperatures, maybe, or the air quality in big cities. In those settings, it might be very difficult to control bleeding by homeopathic means.

“So I can well understand why they might argue that the Lasix angle is one they can justify on humane grounds. But that wouldn’t wash with trainers from outside America. Because while there are different views, some people say there’s more to Lasix than just [prevention of] bleeding. If it could be proven that there’s absolutely no performance-enhancing effect, well, there’d be more of an argument. But people over here would be a bit more suspicious.”

Certainly Oxx is adamant that any such moral margins to Lasix cannot be extended to other medication. As he says, Lasix has never been “the only game in town.”

“Lasix never bothered me too much, to be honest,” he said of competing in the U.S. “It was all the other things that nobody ever spoke about. Up until relatively recent years, horses could even race on anabolic steroids in certain states. And then you’ve got the shot of anti-inflammatories the day before a race, all this sort of thing. You can’t justify masking pain, with bute or whatever; and there’s no justification for giving them anabolic steroids to help them sustain an intensive campaign.”

Even so, he reiterated his sympathy for American trainers whose goalposts are about to be moved. “They’ve had to rely a lot on medication in its various forms to try and get the best results, and it’s going to be a shock to the system to do without,” he said. “But it has to be good in the long term. You can’t keep kicking the can down the road, leaving it for the next generation to deal with. It’s not good for the breed, it’s not good for the image–and ultimately it’s not good for the horse, who has to come first in all this. So I’m glad to hear what’s happening and I think everyone would welcome a change, even if it’s not going to be easy.”

Oxx’s point about the standing of the breed is well made, not least given the lazy tendency in Europe–including among many who should know better–to tar all American Thoroughbreds with the same brush. In due course, then, medication reform may improve perceptions to the point that American breeders gain a commercial dividend in the international market.

“You have to say it’s damaged how the soundness of the American breed has been viewed over the last 40 years or so,” Oxx said. “But at the same time, the good sires will all along have been producing good, sound racehorses. They should be given their chance to shine.”

After all, as he observes, Coolmore have never lost faith with the American Thoroughbred. And nor should anyone else, when American dirt sires of the best type offer the exceptional constitution and class to carry speed two turns. That said, the pendulum can be expected to swing only slowly in terms of the European market for a post-reform generation of American sires.

Jamie Osborne, who so nearly plundered the Breeders’ Cup Classic with Toast Of New York (Thewayyouare) in 2014, brings a characteristically alert eye to likely shifts in the landscape in the meantime. His stable, after all, depends on trading horses to be sustainable and he immediately identified possible new trends.

Toast Of New York raced on Lasix in the U.S., on the “when-in-Rome” principle: Osborne is clear that there is a potential performance advantage, and duly feels that it would be “madness” not to meet the indigenous opposition on an equal footing (regardless of whether a horse suffers EIPH). But the boot, he suspects, may now be on the other foot.

“The implications are quite obvious,” he said. “The new rules would suit some American trainers more than others, for a start. But from a European trainer’s point of view, there are two sides to it. Firstly, when you get a horse that has this issue [bleeding], you’ll find that outlet [of selling to the U.S.] has been taken away. A horse that might have had a future over there will no longer have one. But then on the positive side, I can see there being a short- to mid-term spike in demand for European animals, emerging from a Lasix-free environment.”

Though Osborne deals in horses in training, he can envisage parallel developments in the yearling market. “There are going to be certain American strains that will suffer more than others,” he suggested. “It’s not totally proven, that there is a genetic weakness. But anecdotally, it certainly feels like a strong one. If you’re buying American stock, and both parents raced on Lasix, you just don’t know whether or not there was an issue.

“Being totally selfish for a moment, what’s happening could create more opportunities for us to go out there and race, and also to go out there and sell. They’re going to need animals from somewhere that are relatively free of these issues.”

 

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