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Thoughts on the Industry's Medication Issue

July 21, 2011 · By Terry Finley · Share

Last Thursday, the Breeders’ Cup made headlines by announcing a directive that will lead to the ban of all race day medications at the event by 2013. As a start, horses entered in the five Breeders’ Cup races for juveniles in 2012 will be prohibited from using Lasix, the anti-bleeder diuretic, on race day - and by 2012, all race day drugs will be banned from the Breeders’ Cup.  

When you think about the fact that last year’s Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs featured all but five of 163 horses running on Lasix, that’s a pretty drastic policy change. As a member of the Breeders’ Cup board, I can tell you this step was not taken lightly. We all understand that the use of race day medication isn’t a black and white issue - if it were, the clear-cut decision would be a lot easier. But it’s time to stop kicking the can down the road, so to speak. Action needed to be taken, because we’ve certainly had enough studies and debates.

I think this directive is a great start in evaluating what needs to be done on an industry-wide basis. Up until now, the proponents of race day medication have had kind of an inherent advantage because all they would say is ‘Let’s study it, let’s study it, you know what, we’ve been studying...’ but what do you study and how can you get results if you’re not actually running these horses without the medication? Sure, you can point to studies that have shown the drug is effective in treating bleeding, but what about other studies that have clearly shown it can act as a performance enhancer because horses who are administered Lasix on race day tend to outperform horses who don’t receive it? If you’re not an advocate of banning race day meds, just say that, don’t say you want more studies - because no matter which study comes out or what it finds, you’re going to support it or not support it in a way that represents your outlook.

I believe we’ve been open-minded about people’s concerns and questions, but at a certain point you have to say, ‘Let’s get this process started.’ This is the most action that’s been taken by any North American racing organization in an effort to reduce the use of race day medication. It isn’t a theoretical study done by scientists in a lab, this is the real world. If you have a horse you think is going to be Breeders’ Cup material with a potential to run in the Juvenile, the Juvenile Fillies, the Juvenile Turf, the Juvenile Fillies Turf, or the Juvenile Sprint, you have enough of a heads up before 2012 knowing that you’re not going to be able to give them a shot of Lasix the morning of the race. If you don’t like it, don’t enter.

What this really boils down to is a leadership issue. If you look at the other entities in the business - the Jockey Club, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders’ Association, the NTRA - nobody was really in the position to stand up and lead from the front. And as they stay in the military: lead, follow, or get hell out of the way. You’ve got to give props to the Breeders’ Cup because at least the board members had enough gumption to say. ‘Look, we’re going to stand up and do something different.’ They knew it was going to be unpopular and it has been, but just like in 2007 when an out-of-competition drug-testing program was put in place, or as in 2008 when the non-therapeutic use of anabolic steroids was banned, they realized it was a necessary step to take.

The racing business compares to major league baseball in this situation. Five years ago, everybody knew MLB was a dirty game and the juice guys were hitting all the best home runs. One of the speakers at the race day medication summit at Belmont Park last month was Rob Manfred, Jr., the Executive Vice President for the MLB. He was brought in to discuss his experiences regarding performance enhancing drugs and drug testing in his sport, and he helped design and execute the new drug program for major league baseball. He said, “Before it all came together, I thought the game was headed down a bad path. I thought we were going to lose our home run hitters and our fan base, but it couldn’t have come about any different. Now the game is more popular than it’s ever been, with crowds at record heights, and yeah, you’re not getting as many of those insane home runs, but everybody looks at baseball and the players in different light, and no doubt that’s helped the overall resurgence of baseball.”

We’ve got to bounce back. Our business has really struggled in the past, especially in the last 36 months or so. Who knows, maybe this is a shot in the arm that could really help us.

What would a complete elimination of race day medication mean for our West Point Partners? One of the things it could hurt is our average number of starts, because a lot of trainers who are advocates of keeping Lasix are saying they’ll face a longer recovery period coming out of the races as they deal with concerns over respiratory illnesses and the after-affects of horses bleeding when they run. Those are issues we’ll have to address, but I really struggle with trainers and proponents of raceday medication who talk about how it’s inhumane to run horses without Lasix here. I understand that respiratory issues and pulmonary bleeding are serious challenges to overcome, but I don’t think the argument holds up that it’s inhumane to run without the drug when every other country in the world except Canada successfully does so. Does that make every other country in the world inhumane in their treatment of racehorses? Obviously not. If a horse bleeds and needs recovery time, he needs to get it. If he can’t race without bleeding severely, the question comes up about whether he should be running at all.

For the time being, this doesn’t immediately affect our runners. The rules still allow Lasix and in order to compete on an even playing field our trainers will administer it to our horses as they see fit. But industry-wide, if the day comes when a race day medication ban is in place, we’ll be happy to comply.

I think this well help our business and it will be a good start toward bringing health back to the industry and the breed. From a public relations standpoint, the fact that we are taking action on this matter will be a big plus. To me, it’s very exciting.

See you at the races!

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Great article Terry and I for one applaud the Breeder's Cup board. Lasix is a proven performance enhancer and if our concern is really for the health of the horse then those that really need Lasix to run should not be running. As for the trainer's concern that we will get fewer starts per horse due to longer recovery periods I have to completely disagree with that. In fact, I believe we will get more starts from the horses due to a shorter recovery time. Lasix is a diuretic that causes dehydration and loss of electrolytes, which have to be replenished in another artificial manner. It is about time we moved from performance through better medication to performance through better training and conditioning. After spending time overseas and watching the same horses running every other week and sometimes with only a week between runs (at distances up to 2 miles) it is easy to see the difference. One needs only to look at the past performances for Australian racing to see what I'm talking about. Again, well done to the Breeder's Cup board and let's hope the rest of the racing bodies follow their lead...for the good of the horses and horse racing. See you at the races! Mike Burns - WP Partner
Mr. Finley: I'm one of those who felt this change does need to be done for the long-term betterment of the sport. My view has been Lasix has been one reason horses make fewer starts than they used to, especially given Lasix can dehydrate a horse. That, along with the way horses are bred now as opposed to 30 years ago are to me why we see horses making fewer and fewer starts. I have a five-year plan of my own to phase out Lasix that I originally posted in March on the Too Smart To Fail Message Board, which can be seen at: http://www.toosmarttofail.com/forums/showthread.php?8657 This is only one part of a plan I would have in place that would force changes that likely would a case of short-term pain for long-term gain, as the path we currently are on with Lasix to me could very well destroy the sport, especially given in the public eye, Lasix masks other drugs whether that is true or not. The other part is something new Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural is planning to implement at The Meadowlands and his other tracks, Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs beginning with the foals of 2012 in an attempt to force top horses to race through at least age four: Any horse conceived by a then-four year old stallion would be ineligible to race in major stakes events at any of his tracks, including The Meadowlands Pace, the biggest event in Harness Racing for pacers. Thoroughbred tracks to me not only need to follow suit, but expand on it and make it where horses essentially would have to race through their five year old seasons before being retired. That to me would force major changes in the way horses are bred, going for durability and stamina over speed and precociousness, as if breeders know horses have to race through their five year old season before going to stud, they would think twice about going for the quick buck as so many do these days. Even if only Churchill Downs followed suit, that alone would force such changes that to me would be for the long-term benefit of the sport.
Terry Thanks for being a consistent advocate for the voiceless horses we all love so much. In my experience it is usually the case with meds that positives have offsetting negatives that hurt whatever is being treated be they human or otherwise. It is inconceivable that the majority of young mammals in their prime would need medication to do what they do naturally. 50 or 60 years ago they were able to run a lot more often without these meds than they do today with them. Our society as a whole has become overmedicated. It will be interesting to see if we have bred into our animals the need for these drugs to perform and end up with a new generation of studs and broad mares that have not performed to date because of the consistent use of lasix and other drugs.
Well said Terry..Laughable how in this sport everything needs to by reviewed or studied to death. That is code for doing nothing. I think Zenyatta and a slightly improving economy are bringing some people back to racing (as fans, as owners) who have left it. The question is, does racing do something to keep those people in it this time? Banning medication and cracking down on the cheats greatly enhances our chances.