Mike Smith aboard Justify (7) after winning the Kentucky Derby on May 5, 2018, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

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Block: Lingering Debate Over Drug Underscores Need For Uniform Rules In Horse Racing

Benjamin Block
June 06, 2018 - 12:47 pm
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Intermittently stealing headlines away from the undeniable beauty that exists in thoroughbred horse racing is the continued debate over horses running on race-day Lasix, a therapeutic medication.

“When you look at the use of Lasix, you’re going to have opinions all over the board,” said Dr. Dionne Benson, executive director and chief operating officer of the Racing Medication & Testing Consortium.

Lasix draws a lot of criticism because horses are banned from racing on it in Europe, yet are allowed to receive it on race day in the United States and Canada. It's administered to help prevent bleeding in the lungs, but it’s also a diuretic, so it's possible for a horse to lose upwards of 27 pounds before a race. And because horses that are approved to run on Lasix are injected with it four hours prior to post time, some have argued that the weight-loss side effect can be an advantage. Another argument is that Lasix can mask illegal drugs or serious medical conditions. However, third-party administration of the medication, along with regulations, has helped defend against this in an effort to maintain the integrity of the sport.

“I think that it’s important for us to understand how to treat and prevent EIPH (exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage) in racehorses, but I think we also have to consider the concerns of the industry in its use," Benson said. "And from out perspective, third-party Lasix does that."

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Joe Appelbaum, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, whimsically calls the Lasix debate “an intramural political issue,” citing bigger problems.

“It’s being used as a piñata in this fight amongst various industry groups,” Appelbaum told WFAN. “Who’s exerting control? Who has influence? That’s really what we’re talking about.”

The power struggles and lack of uniformity Appelbaum alludes to are illustrated by the 38 different jurisdictions in horse racing. A singular governing body does not exist.

Efforts have been made to usurp control from the 38 jurisdictions and have the United States government oversee all antidoping and medication-control matters. Legislation called the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017 was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in May of last year. It's since been referred to the Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection, but no further action has been taken. 

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Likely more focused on winning his second Triple Crown in four years, Justify’s trainer, Bob Baffert, nonchalantly danced around the jurisdiction issue in horse racing.

“Horse trainers need to stick to training horses and stay out of politics,” he told WFAN on Tuesday night at Citi Field, where post positions for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes were revealed. 

Todd Pletcher, who trains Vino Rosso and Noble Indy, was a little more diplomatic.

“As a trainer, what you’d like to see is consistency and the same rules established everywhere that’s fair to everyone, especially when you’re having Triple Crown events at three different jurisdictions," he said.

Less tactful was D. Wayne Lukas — trainer of Bravazo and Baffert’s closest competition.

“I’ve been saying that for 35 years!” Lukas cried out, punctuating his disdain over horse racing not having one governing body.  

And when you talk about uniformity in horse racing, or the lack thereof, third-party Lasix administration is embroiled in that conversation.

Benson, who served as a veterinary assistant at Canterbury Park before assuming her role with the Racing Medication & Testing Consortium, broke down how the three jurisdictions of the Triple Crown — Kentucky, Maryland and New York — are slightly dissimilar.

“There are commissions, such as Maryland, who actually hire a private practice that agrees not to do any work on the backside with racehorses, and they come in and they do Lasix on behalf of the commission," she said.

"In other instances, you have veterinarians that are actually employed by the commission, and that’s kind of the Kentucky model. The shot itself is paid to the commission through the horseman’s purse account, so there’s no financial incentive to the veterinarian to help a trainer.

"And the third way is kind of what they do in Belmont, at New York, and that’s where the track actually hires the veterinarians and oversees them on the third-party Lasix administration.”

While admitting her skepticism, Benson confessed that a replacement of race-day Lasix is something “we talk about all the time.” She added, “If we can find an alternative (to Lasix) that protected the horse but didn’t require race-day administration, I think everyone would be on board.”

And that sentiment elicited a range of reactions.

“First off, we’d have to understand what is that alternative,” politicked New York Racing Association president and CEO Chris Kay. “Then we would review it through the racing committee and equine safety committee of our board.”

Pletcher, on the other hand, was seemingly more open to the idea.

“I think if someone could come up with a viable alternative, the racing community would welcome it," he said. 

Appelbaum was more accusatory, saying the horse-racing industry has done “a poor job” of suggesting different options.

“It’s my contention that if you would like us not to use Lasix, you need to provide these working men and women with the tools to train without it,” he said, referring to a lack of education in that area.

Baffert, in his laid-back, West Coast candor, said he trusts that the scientists know best.

“I’m for anything that would benefit the horse,” he said, noting, “We’re very conservative with our medication.”

He also admitted, “I like when there’s security watching.”

Come Saturday, as Justify looks to fight off nine other thoroughbreds seeking to ruin his bid for the Triple Crown, everyone behind the scenes will be playing by New York’s rules.

This week, at least.

Then it’ll be on to another track, in another jurisdiction, with its own set of rules.

Follow Ben on Twitter at @benjaminblock21