Watching the Wheels
by Mike Tanner, USTA Executive Vice President and CEO
In this issue, editor Kim French has authored an informative piece on Lasix, which probably is the most misunderstood and demonized therapeutic medication in horse racing. The article is supported by exchanges I’ve had recently with Dr. Thomas Tobin, the noted toxicologist, pharmacologist and researcher at the University of Kentucky’s Maxwell H. Gluck Research Center. Dr. Tobin is widely regarded as one of the nation’s preeminent experts on Lasix, and contributed significantly to the writing of the model rules that currently regulate the administration of that drug.
You should check out Kim’s piece on pg. 70. You’ll be smarter for having read it, because it’s steeped in facts, reason and demonstrable science.
Those three elements—reasons, facts and science—have been in short supply lately as the racing world comes to grips with the spate of catastrophic Thoroughbred breakdowns that have plagued Santa Anita Park since Christmas. As of the first week of April, no less than 23 horses had suffered fatal injuries while competing at the Arcadia, Calif. oval.
This is, of course, horrific and unacceptable, especially so to the general public that knows very little about horse racing and the care provided to the equine athletes that are at the center of it.
The story went viral, and then entered the mainstream press. People were outraged. Protests ensued and demands were made. And so, Santa Anita responded to the pressure by announcing a plan to eliminate the use of race day Lasix and to prohibit jockeys from using whips in races conducted there.
The legendary Baltimore newspaperman and social critic H.L. Mencken once declared, “For every complex problem, there’s a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Well, this is that.
The message is clear: Lasix is somehow contributing to these fatalities. It’s simple: take away a therapeutic medication and a piece of racing equipment, and things will get better.
But they won’t. Or, at least, they won’t because of the removal of a beneficial, therapeutic medication that isn’t a performance-enhancing drug.
Let’s take a look at Lasix, also known as furosemide. Lasix is a diuretic, not an analgesic. It has no pain-reducing properties. Administered under controlled conditions (as racing has done for decades), it has no masking effects and does not hide the presence of other drugs or illicit substances. And it’s both inexpensive and effective.
Here’s what the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) had to say about it in June 2017.
“The AAEP’s current policy on race-day medication administration endorses the use of furosemide to help mitigate the occurrence of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH) in the racehorse. This policy is based on the overwhelming body of international scientific and clinical evidence. . . . While we are optimistic that current research projects will yield an alternative treatment for EIPH which does not require race-day administration, as doctors of veterinary medicine we cannot abandon our current policy until science provides an efficacious option for protecting the health and welfare of the horse.”
Then again, what do they know? They’re only the gold standard for equine care in the United States.
Please pardon the sarcasm. The truth is, while the science can rule out what isn’t causing horses to break down at a Thoroughbred track in California, I don’t know for sure what is. Maybe it’s the track surface. Possibly it’s a medication issue of another kind. Perhaps it’s the inherent fragility of the breed. I no longer work within the Thoroughbred industry. I don’t know enough to have an educated opinion on this one. It’s a complex problem lacking an easy answer.
Which brings me to the proposed Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019 (H.R. 1754).
If the name of the bill seems familiar, it’s because it is. In the last Congress, it was the failed Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017 (H.R. 2651). Before that, it was the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015 (H.R. 3084), which, interestingly, did not contain a Lasix prohibition. That one didn’t go anywhere, either. All would have added/would add an additional layer of federal bureaucracy to regulate medication in horse racing.
The USTA opposes H.R. 1754 and opposed H.R. 2651 before it. We believe that the bill’s passage would make things worse, not better, for harness racing; would impose an unfunded mandate upon an industry that can ill afford it; and would, by virtue of the Lasix prohibition, put our horses at physical risk. We did not oppose H.R. 3084 because it was specific to the Thoroughbred industry and we acknowledge that other breeds know their respective businesses better than we do. I would add, however, that the majority of that industry, and, in particular, the National Horsemen’s Benevolent Association and its 30,000-plus members, were against it, as well, and continue in opposition to its successors.
H.R. 1754 has momentum, however, and the Santa Anita fatalities will likely add to it. That has everyone’s attention, and there have been several calls for Congress to investigate the matter, but there’s also a lack of understanding.
In one Capitol Hill visit that I made, an aide commiserated with me about the breakdown issue that was affecting harness racing. No, I told her, that’s not us. Our breakdown rate is, on average, about 13 to 14 times less than that of Thoroughbred racing. It’s a rarity in our sport. The look on her face confirmed what I had suspected—that there remains an educational gap in the policy-making arena, despite our focused and concentrated efforts.
That’s the battle we face, however. To most of the general public, and certainly a good percentage of our civil servants in Washington, D.C., a horse is a horse is a horse. As with H.R. 1754, one size fits all.
While there is language within the newer version that suggests the possibility of separate rules for separate breeds, that’s all it is—a mention that might be considered. And as for the prohibition of Lasix, that part apparently is non-negotiable.
Why? Because it’s clear. It’s simple. But here’s the problem. It’s also wrong.
The views contained in this column are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association. To comment on this column, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.