Commentary: The Battle of Salix

Another battle over the medication Salix is brewing. We say "another" because Thoroughbred racing has been wrestling with this drug on and off since the 1970s when there was a mixed bag of prohibition and acceptance among the racing states. New York was the last state to fall, lifting its ban in 1995. Today, debate is heating up again over the effectiveness of the anti-bleeder medication (common name furosemide and formerly known under the brand name Lasix) and more importantly whether it should be allowed on race day since research has shown it is a performance-enhancing drug.

We know this about Salix: It is effective in preventing exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging (EIPH), which is known more commonly as bleeding. Horses with EIPH have their pulmonary systems stressed to the point where capillaries and blood vessels burst and they bleed through the nostrils. We know from research that racehorses with EIPH do not perform as well as horses without this condition. We also know that using Salix improves performance, which is the reason a maiden claiming race for 2-year-olds June 1 at Delaware Park, shows eight of the nine horses entered are listed as running on Salix and/or an adjunct medication. Actually, for the entire race card, only five of 89 horses entered will not be racing on Salix.

We're not picking on Delaware Park. These statistics are the same at all North American racetracks.

A study conducted in South Africa--the results of which were published in 2009--was significant because it reaffirmed the drug works to reduce EIPH and that horses on the drug perform better than those without it.

Now what does racing do with a drug that effectively treats a serious condition, but is known to influence performance in a sport with legal gambling?

In Australia all horses can be trained on Bute (phenylbutazone), Salix, and other medications provided the horses are free of any traces of the drugs on race day.

In France no medication is allowed whatsoever, even for training. A veterinarian has to prescribe treatment and a set time is established for treating the horse. Any trace of medication found in a horse on race day triggers a disqualification. The testing in France is so good that bloodstock agent Patrick Barbe said, "If there is one drop of Bute in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, they can find it."

The British Horseracing Authority makes a clear distinction between medication and doping. Medications are permissible during training and have definitive withdrawal times designed to ensure the medication by race-day is at such a low level that it cannot affect performance. Zero tolerance does not apply to these drugs. Doping agents, however, are not allowed in any concentration, and diuretics (Salix) are included on that list along with anabolic steroids and tranquilizers.

But it is not clear-cut, at this point, simply to state the U.S. should adopt the policies of these other racing countries because these locales don't have any problems with drugs.

Trainer Rick Hiles, a member of the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council, recently related a story about an individual who asked why a European country had no positives for phenylbutazone. The drug can be administered no later than 24 hours before a race in the U.S. The reason for the lack of positives, Hiles was told, was that the jurisdiction didn't test for the drug.

Hopefully an international summit scheduled for June 13-14 at Belmont Park will shed plenty of light on how the U.S. can improve its medication policies and ensure the safety and well-being of racehorses. The summit is being organized by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC).

The program will include presentations on the current status of medication issues in racing, an overview of EIPH and its impact upon horse health, management and treatment alternatives for EIPH, and testing issues surrounding treatment for EIPH. These topics will be followed by international panel discussions on regulatory issues surrounding race-day medication, veterinary viewpoints on the management of EIPH, and the management of EIPH from a trainer's perspective. The second day of the summit is closed to the public and media. The agenda for day two is a facilitated discussion among RMTC members and invited guests.

Here's hoping the summit does not drive only one side of the debate and instead is educational, filling the gaps in everyone's knowledge about a very complicated subject. Then, at least when the battle comes, decisions will be made after informed and passionate debate instead of ignorance and fear.

About the Author

Eric Mitchell

Eric Mitchell is a Editorial Director and Editor-in-Chief The Blood-Horse magazine.

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