KHRC and the Lasix Debate: ‘We just disagree’
I thought about “We Just Disagree,” Dave Mason’s hit song from the late 1970s, as I drove away from Monday’s meeting of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Minutes earlier, the hay, oats, and water movement suffered a stunning setback after the 14 commissioners were evenly divided over whether or not to approve a phase-out of race-day medication beginning with 2-year-olds in 2013 and a complete ban by 2015. The deadlocked vote meant the proposal was dead, at least for now.
So let’s leave it alone, ’cause we can’t see eye to eye.
There ain’t no good guys, there ain’t no bad guys.
There’s only you and me and we just disagree.
There weren’t any good guys or bad guys in this disagreement. I’m sure everyone, whether they think it’s a good idea or bad one to get rid of the anti-bleeder medication furosemide (Lasix) on race days, believes they had the best interests of the horse or the Kentucky horse industry at heart when taking a stand on the issue.
They just disagree.
The defeat on the 7-7 tie was stunning because the KHRC chairman, Bob Beck, surely wouldn’t have called the proposal for a vote at the 11th hour if he didn’t think he had enough support to get it passed. Beck’s move to hire John Ward as the KHRC’s executive director may have cost him a vote. Ward, formerly a trainer who is sympathetic to reduced reliance on medication, had to step down as a commissioner in order to take the paid executive director’s job. In his comments during the meeting (it was his first day on the job), Ward indicated support for the proposal, saying its “methodical” phase-out was “about as reasonable as you can get.”
But Beck probably was also counting on a “yes” vote from commissioner Tom Ludt, the chairman of the Breeders’ Cup, which has adopted rules for its championship races eliminating Lasix from 2-year-old contests in 2012 and all races in 2013. Ludt, who admitted to wearing several industry hats at different times, voted against the proposal saying he “wants to do what’s best for horse racing” in Kentucky.
Ludt offered an amendment to soften the phase-out, starting just with 2-year-old stakes races in Kentucky in 2013 instead of all 2-year-old races. That amendment was defeated but will be brought up again within 30 days by the KHRC.
Beck, along with vice chairman Tracy Farmer and veteran horsewoman Elizabeth Lavin of Longfield Farm, talked passionately about the need for Kentucky’s horse industry to demonstrate national leadership on an issue that is under increased scrutiny by federal lawmakers, the general public, and international owners, breeders, and racing authorities. The United States (along with its neighbor, Canada) is alone among major racing countries in permitting the race-day administration of any drugs.
Kentucky shouldn’t lead the way “just for the hell of it,” said Beck, but do so because “it’s the right thing to do.”
“This is the right place and the right time,” said Farmer, a prominent owner and breeder and Jockey Club member. “If no other states go with us, we can withdraw and go back to where we were. But someone has to start.”
At the other end of the leadership spectrum was commissioner Tom Conway, who vociferously opposed the phase-out for Kentucky, calling Lasix a “wonderful drug.” Instead of leading, Conway proposed that Kentucky be a follower. “Let’s wait and see what other states take the lead,” he suggested.
Last summer’s presentation of a study by McKinsey & Co. consultants at The Jockey Club Round Table in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., reflected the general public’s unfavorable view of horse racing, largely due to animal welfare and medication issues. But stakeholders surveyed by McKinsey also believe medication is a serious problem, and as Beck said at the conclusion of Monday’s meeting, the phase-out of raceday Lasix was the first of several changes he had hoped the KHRC would make.
The Raceday Medication Committee, which earlier on Monday in a 4-1 vote approved the proposal, added compromise language that gave Kentucky commissioners an escape clause or parachute to reverse course in the event no other states follow suit. That would have made Kentucky racing a drug-free island, which many horsemen might have abandoned, especially those competing in lower-end races. If, by Sept. 1, 2013, no other major states adopted similar rules, many of the phase-out supporters said they would vote to rescind the new rule. Thus, only five or six months of Lasix-free racing of 2-year-olds would have occurred before the old Lasix rules were reinstated.
But that escape clause wasn’t enough to appease the opponents of the raceday medication phase-out. They brought out every conceivable reason to fight it: jockeys covered with blood from horses that gushed through the nose; demonstrations by animal rights groups that would think it inhumane not to give medication to horses; a stampede of runners leaving Kentucky to race elsewhere; owners dropping out of the game. Commissioner Frank Jones said the effect of the phase-out would be “catastrophic.”
Commissioner Foster Northrop, a racetrack veterinarian who derives a portion of his income from the administration of Lasix shots, said passage of the proposal would “destroy Kentucky racing.”
I don’t doubt his sincerity, but I do question whether or not Northrop has a conflict of interest on the matter.
Owner-trainer Dale Romans, vice president of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, is not on the racing commission but spoke during both the committee and full KHRC meetings.
On one hand, Romans said he didn’t see horse racing having perception problems, citing increased winter handle at Gulfstream Park and Aqueduct and a record-breaking weekend of racing at Keeneland. On the other hand, he said, racing has “lost market share faster than any business in the world.”
One thing Romans didn’t equivocate about was his belief that more medication is better than less. He criticized a former racing commission’s vote to restrict the use of multiple non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Passing a raceday ban on Lasix, he said, would be the “final nail in the coffin” for Kentucky’s racing industry.
Commissioner Lavin disagreed. “We now live in a time where perception is reality, and the perception is that racing in Kentucky is a sport based on chemical manipulation,” she said. “We’ve talked it to death, and I am going to support the motion. If not us, who? If not now, when?”
Representatives of several organization were invited to speak on the subject, including Breeders’ Cup Ltd., whose president and CEO, Craig Fravel, said from a personal standpoint he is “amazed” at the industry’s resistance to change. “We never want to change anything,” Fravel said. “We just want to keep doing it the way we always have.”
Beck is convinced change is around the corner in the form of federal intervention if state racing regulators do not act. A bill filed in Congress last year by New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall and Kentucky Rep. Ed Whitfield would impose a much harsher ban on drugs than the failed Kentucky proposal.
“I frankly don’t think federal legislation is the best way to address our issues,” Beck said.
It now looks like it may be the only way.