Compromise nowhere to be found in medication debate
It is racing's version of the Hatfields and McCoys, the Tea Party against the Occupiers, Right to Lifers vs. Pro Choice. It has caused a rift between some very high-profile horse owners and their own trainers and veterinarians. It is a debate that appears to have no easy answers or areas for compromise.
Those who believe the race-day administration of furosemide (I'm going to call it Lasix) is the right and humane thing to do to treat Thoroughbreds for exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage are not going to change their minds because Bill Casner or Arthur Hancock or organizations like The Jockey Club, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association or Breeders' Cup want them to. And the people who would like to see racing in North America align itself with the rest of the world when it comes to dealing with EIPH are not going to be swayed by veterinarians or scientific studies supporting the use of Lasix because they believe too many questions remain unanswered on the effect this drug may have on horses, their performance and the Thoroughbred breed itself.
Monday's meeting of the Race Day Medication Committee of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission brought out testimony and opinions from many of our industry's alphabet soup organizations on the issue of race-day administration of Lasix. We had The Jockey Club, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners, Breeders' Cup, Kentucky Association of Equine Practitioners, Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, Association of Racing Commissioners International, and the Jockeys' Guild. Individuals, like the aforementioned Casner and Hancock, along with farm manager Neil Howard of Gainesway Farm and bloodstock agent Lincoln Collins also provided their thoughts on the subject.
There was science, too, with a thorough presentation from Dr. Alice Stack of Michigan State University, who gave a tutorial on EIPH and reviewed some of the existing studies on Lasix. Dr. Rick Sams, a chemist with HFL Sport Science, which contracts with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission for testing, said the masking effect of Lasix in detecting other drugs is “largely eliminated” if its use is tightly controlled.
There was only one tangential comment, from racing commissioner Alan Leavitt, a standardbred owner and breeder, about what some believe is a far more serious challenge to horse racing integrity: blood-doping agents like EPO.
The science and equine veterinary practitioners tilted heavily toward the continued, regulated race-day administration of Lasix. Their conviction, based on scientific studies, is that some degree of EIPH or internal bleeding in the lungs occurs in nearly every racehorse. To not alleviate that condition with Lasix, the most effective treatment currently available, is inhumane, they say.
It should be pointed out, as a South African study on bleeders and Lasix demonstrated, that Lasix is not a cure-all. In that study, Stack pointed out, 55% of horses given Lasix still exhibited signs of EIPH through post-race endoscopic examination. Horses given a placebo exhibited EIPH post-race at a rate of 80%.
Two other speakers, veterinarian Sid Gustafson, representing the Humane Society of the United States, along with Kathy Guillermo, vice president for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said it is inhumane to give horses this diuretic every time they run.
So there is no agreement even on what is humane.
Dr. David Richardson, from TOBA's Graded Stakes Committee, and Craig Fravel, CEO of the Breeders' Cup, are worried about America's standing in the international racing and breeding community and potentially severe economic consequences. Others, like Casner, Hancock, Collins, and Howard, are concerned the Thoroughbred breed in the United States is being weakened because of Lasix and its use by nearly every horse racing in America today.
Both sides of this argument feel they are in the right. But that brings into question the definition of what is “right.”
Dr. Foster Northrup, a racetrack practitioner and a member of the Race Day Medication Committee and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said veterinarians are focused on treating each individual horse and doing what is right for that particular animal. Veterinarians are trained to diagnose and treat diseases and injuries. It is the same philosophy that leads equine surgeons to artificially straighten the legs of thousands of foals born each year, improving their performance capabilities on the racetrack (and their value in the sale ring).
The latter is an example of doing something that may be right for the individual animal but wrong for the breed.
Scientists and veterinarians don't know with certainty whether we are weakening the breed by permitting horses to race on Lasix – whether they suffer from severe EIPH or not – and then sending the best of these performers into the breeding shed. Are they bleeders? Were their performances improved because of Lasix? To my knowledge, no science has addressed the effect Lasix has on the performance of animals that do not need the drug. Why is Lasix routinely given to horses that are not problem bleeders? The answer seems obvious: because Lasix helps a horse's performance.
In the case of angular limb deformities, there seems to be no question that these are genetic traits that can be passed on from generation to generation, and corrective surgery is masking a defect. If we are going to have a serious discussion about whether or not Lasix is weakening the breed, we also need to begin a dialogue about the long-term effect of these corrective surgeries and whether or not the industry has been transparent enough in disclosing them.
People who believe Lasix is the best currently available treatment for racehorses say they want to help the horse. People who want to eliminate its use say they want to help the breed. If the latter group is to be taken seriously, it's time to address the other factors that some believe are turning the American Thoroughbred into a shadow of its former self.