Meeting Shows Deep Divide Over Salix Use in Thoroughbreds

Meeting Shows Deep Divide Over Salix Use in Thoroughbreds

There is a decided split between trainers and breeders on the issue of race day furosemide in Thoroughbred race horses.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

If testimony taken Nov. 14 in Kentucky, a major breeding and racing state, is any indication, the battle over use of furosemide on race day doesn't figure to end any time soon.

With no regulatory action taken in any jurisdiction, even plans to ban the anti-bleeding medication called Salix, or Lasix, in certain graded stakes for 2-year-olds in 2012 seem up against it.

During a fact-finding meeting of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) Race Day Medication Committee, formed to deal with furosemide and related adjunct bleeder medications, there were some unsubstantiated claims and discussion of research into furosemide--but even the science was interpreted in different ways. And disagreement continues over foreign countries in regard to drug-testing procedures and what therapeutic drugs they use in racehorses.

After five and a half hours of comment from various individuals and groups, it was clear no ground was broken on the issue and that more meetings will be held, at least in Kentucky.

"We will continue down this road," said KHRC vice chairman Tracy Farmer, who chairs the medication committee.

That road will likely be long and bumpy. There is a decided split between trainers and breeders on the issue of race day furosemide; though there were almost 20 presenters at the meeting, no one spoke from a racing association; and the presence of representatives from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) could indicate the groups plan to be more involved in Thoroughbred racing issues.

The Jockey Club has been outspoken on the race day issue since the outgoing and incoming chairmen of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI) earlier this year called for a five-year phase-out of furosemide. In response to questions from KHRC members, Jockey Club executive director Matt Iuliano indicated the organization will be a leader but can't go it alone.

Consensus Said to be Necessary

"We're prepared to take a leadership position, but if we don't have everyone on board from the start, it will be a difficult transition for the rest of the nation," Iuliano said.

Willie Koester, RCI chairman and a member of the Ohio State Racing Commission, outlined the position of the organization and its many racing commission members. The policy RCI holds is consistent with that of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC): Use of furosemide on race day is acceptable only if it is administered by regulatory veterinarians, and that use of adjunct bleeder drugs should end.

Koester noted the RCI board voted to revisit its position on furosemide but there was no consensus. A similar debate by the RMTC, which represents about 25 industry stakeholders--produced similar results, he said.

"RCI believes only healthy horses should be running," Koester said. "We recognize emotions run high on this subject but we do not want to politicize the issue. (A blanket ban) may have unintended consequences for the health and welfare of the horse.

"We encourage you to eliminate any other medications you allow to be used on race day. But if there is to be a change in the policy (on Salix), it must be universally adopted and universally implemented."

Koester, who personally opposes use of furosemide on race day, brought up questions that shadow the debate but remain unanswered. He asked how racing on furosemide is different from training on the drug in relation to the breeding shed, and why anti-Salix horse owners continue to race horses on the drug.

"These are questions that need to be addressed," Koester said.

Is Rider Safety an Issue?

Terry Meyocks, national manager for the Jockeys' Guild, brought the human element into the debate. He said the Guild is in full support of the RMTC proposal to continue using furosemide in a more regulated environment.

"Salix is in the best interest of the racehorse," Meyocks said. "It has proven to be effective. If (administration) is pushed back to 24 hours (from four hours before a race), you might as well give horses a shot of saline solution instead. Jockeys don't want to ride horses that may suffer a rupture of the pulmonary artery in the middle of a race."

Meyocks also said people who believe not using furosemide on race day creates a medication-free environment are naïve. He said other drugs will be used to compensate, perhaps to the detriment of the horse, integrity, and racing itself.

"Medication control is one of the few things this industry does well," Meyocks said. "It's one of the few areas of this industry that offers complete transparency."

Animal Rights Groups Weigh In

Testimony from animal-rights groups sent mixed messages. Sid Gustafson, DVM, representing the HSUS, criticized North American trainers for using therapeutic drugs instead of improving horsemanship but gave no indication the organization holds an anti-racing position.

"We do not oppose horse racing but we do oppose race-day medication," Gustafson said. "Racing comes natural to a horse. Drugs are not the solution; competent horsemanship is the solution. The humane care of the horse prevents bleeding, my friends."

Kathy Guillermo of PETA, which has seized on high-profile breakdowns in horse racing, said the organization "never wanted to be involved in this industry but will be involved until changes are made." She said racing is ripe for federal invention--something some racing stakeholders believe and would welcome--because of some of its policies and practices.

Guillermo didn't say PETA is anti-racing, though she did ask why horses would be pushed to run if all of them suffer from exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH), the condition for which furosemide is administered. It has been established all horses do suffer from some level of EIPH during strenuous activity.

"Every time a horse circles the track it's a fatality risk," Guillermo said. "Drop the pretense that race-day drugs are therapeutic."

Tom Conway, a KHRC member and a horse owner, asked Guillermo for clarification.

"Is it inhumane to race a horse without a drug that can help it, or are you simply saying racing of the horse is an inhumane exercise?" Conway said.

Breeders Say it's Time for Change

Breeder Arthur Hancock of Stone Farm in Paris, Ky., cited research in this year's McKinsey & Company report that suggests the majority of the public has a negative perception of horse racing. He blamed the decline in the number of starts per year by horses on widespread use of medication and called on the KHRC to lead the way in banning all race-day drugs.

Hancock compared the horse racing and breeding industry to a "vampire" that will die like its victims if it doesn't change course.

Neil Howard, who manages Gainesway Farm in Lexington, Ky., said he believes furosemide is used "indiscriminately" and that the American Graded Stakes Committee proposal to begin racing 2-year-olds without it in 2012 is a good starting point. Like KHRC member and trainer John Ward Jr., Howard said research should be done in conjunction with a furosemide phase-out.

"A ban on drugs may be a bitter pill to swallow for most of us, but the future of our industry is dependent on (changes)," Howard said. "It would be a crime not to use the American Graded Stakes Committee information. It hope somebody takes the ball and tries to figure out how bad (bleeding) really is."

Lincoln Collins of Kern Thoroughbreds in Midway, Ky., also called on the KHRC to ban race-day drugs. But his claims that the fate of North American Thoroughbred racing is in jeopardy when compared with the game in other countries didn't sit well with KHRC member Jerry Yon, MD, who chairs the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council.

Collins suggested horses in Europe race "clean."

"We're here to talk about race-day medication," Yon said. "You're comparing apples and oranges. You're confusing the issue, and some of your statements are out of line. (United States drug testing) picks up everything (in a sample). Their drug testing doesn't. It needs to be measured with the same system."

Salix Called Red Herring

Trainers Rick Hiles, president of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, and David England support continued use of furosmide. They both questioned research results that suggest the public knows about and is opposed to use of Salix on race day.

"What's good for the horse is good for racing," Hiles said. "I don't believe the public is crying out for us to stop using Salix."

England said the industry should spend its time and money on marketing rather than beating medication to death. He said widespread use of race-day medication already has been stopped.

"It just seems like Salix is today's evil," England said. "We need to take a real hard look at this industry as a whole and compare it with other industries. I think most fans have never heard of Salix, and it makes no difference to them either way."

Alan Leavitt, a member of the KHRC medication committee and a Standardbred owner and breeder, said horse racing already has a level playing field because Salix is available to any horse that races. He also said the industry should spend less time worrying about furosemide and put its resources behind testing for illegal substances and stopping practices such as blood-doping.

About the Author

Tom LaMarra

Tom LaMarra, a native of New Jersey and graduate of Rutgers University, has been news editor at The Blood-Horse since 1998. After graduation he worked at newspapers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as an editor and reporter with a focus on municipal government and politics. He also worked at Daily Racing Form and Thoroughbred Times before joining The Blood-Horse. LaMarra, who has lived in Lexington since 1994, has won various writing awards and was recognized with the Old Hilltop Award for outstanding coverage of the horse racing industry. He likes to spend some of his spare time handicapping races.

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