THE LASIX DEBATE ARRIVES ON CAPITOL HILL

On June 22, 2018, a subcommittee of the House of Representatives heard differing views about the proposed Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017. Much of the hearing pertained to the use of raceday furosemide (Lasix) on horses to mitigate pulmonary bleeding.  Following are excerpts of remarks by four of the key people who voiced their opinions about a drug that is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency because it can be used by athletes to mask the use of other drugs.

Perspectives on humane treatment

Point:  “If Lasix is not permitted, you withdraw water from the horse for at least 24 hours prior to competition.  And you withdraw food.  That’s how it’s done.  Don’t think for a second that horses don’t bleed in Europe.  They may not be able to use Lasix on raceday, but the most effective therapy for a horse that bleeds is to withdraw water 24 hours prior to competition.  Now, is that humane?  Is that in the best interest of the horse?  (Alan Foreman, chairman and CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association)

Counterpoint:  “There’s no indication they’re [racehorses in other countries] ailing or suffering because they’re not using raceday medication.  It is a standard we think the United States also should be able to meet.  And as it has been mentioned, these [U. S.-based] horses do travel internationally, and when they’re in those other countries, they’re racing just fine.  In an effort to bring the U.S. up to the global standard, I think [the Horseracing Integrity Act] is necessary.”  (Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States)

Perspectives on whether Lasix is performance-enhancing

Point:  “If it prevents EIPH from occurring, it’s going to allow a horse to perform at its natural talent.  If bleeding does occur beneath the alveoli of the lungs, then yes, that would inhibit the horse from just gaining the advantage of his natural talent.”  (Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association)

Counterpoint:  “Bob Baffert had a horse in [the 2018 Pegasus World Cup in Florida] called West Coast…he was offered a five-pound weight allowance.  He would carry five pounds less if he didn’t administer Lasix before the Pegasus.  And Bob Baffert chose to administer Lasix.  So I think at least Bob Baffert is saying it’s a performance-enhancing drug.”  (Stuart Janney, Chairman of the Jockey Club)

Questions and still more questions

While Mr. Foreman and Mr. Hamelback dutifully acted as spokesmen and advocates for their employers, the talking points the gentlemen conveyed raise questions that undermine their arguments.

First, why is it that trainers in the preponderance of countries with organized horse racing are able to send out horses without Lasix and trainers in the United States are not?  Mr. Foreman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association asserted that European (and by inference, the other places with bans on raceday Lasix) practices to keep horses from bleeding are inhumane.  Are European trainers really knowingly causing harm to their racehorses via their anti-bleeding regimen?  Was such alleged animal abuse also an accurate characterization of trainers in the United States in the more than 200 years before raceday Lasix was permitted by state racing authorities?

Second, Mr. Hamelback’s comments concede that Lasix is a performance-enhancing drug when he refers to Lasix preventing exercise-induced pulmonary bleeding and thereby allowing “a horse to perform at its natural talent.”  What other recognized and reputable sport can one cite as an example in which the contention has been made publicly or to Congress, by a governing body or a players’ union, that its athletes must rely on a performance-enhancing drug to unlock “natural talent”?  If Lasix has such salutary properties why is it banned by every major professional sports league in the United States and worldwide by the Olympics?

Lastly, and most importantly, why would prominent horsemen’s groups, whose members derive their very livelihood from the horse-racing industry, persist in alienating (or risk alientating) the people without whom there would be no commerical horse racing:  bettors?  Surveys of horse players have consistently found that bettors overwhelmingly prefer no raceday medication.  Try telling a bettor that racehorses are strictly tested for illicit drugs, with the qualifier that horses are allowed to run on Lasix even though it can mask the use of other performance-enhancing drugs.  Moreover, a cursory Internet search will leave no doubt that the image of horse racing has been tarnished by breakdowns and, rightly or wrongly, the widespread perception among the general public of “drugged” animals as the root cause.

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