Keeneland presents American Graded Stakes Standings: Thinking Long-Term on Medication

by | 08.11.2011 | 2:25pm

Horsemen from around the U.S. that I've talked with in recent months are almost universally opposed to the growing movement to ban the raceday use of any medication in horses, particularly the anti-bleeder drug Lasix. Trainers are very concerned a Lasix ban will lead to fewer starts per horse, cost an owner more to treat exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage if Lasix is not permitted, and force horses to be laid up for months to recover from internal bleeding episodes at a time when runners are scarce and fields for many races are short.

Breeders' Cup sent out the first volley when the organization's board of directors voted to prohibit Lasix at its championship event, first with 2-year-olds in 2012 and then with all horses beginning in 2013. Horsemen from overseas predictably applauded the move, since their horses are not allowed to use any raceday medications. Many of those trainers give their horses Lasix when they come to the Breeders' Cup because of a “when in Rome” philosophy based on recognition that the drug is a performance enhancer. They didn't want to allow Americans to have an edge.

The latest move to ban Lasix and raceday medications comes from the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association's American Graded Stakes Committee, which, like the Breeders' Cup, will start with 2-year-olds in 2012. The committee will evaluate how the program has worked at the end of next year and decide whether or not to extend the Lasix ban on Graded Stakes for all aged horses, beginning in 2013.

TOBA cannot regulate medication rules, but it can insist that any race for 2-year-olds that receives Grade 1, 2, or 3 status must follow certain rules. That approach worked in the regulation of anabolic steroids and installation of pre-race testing for bicarbonate loading in horses, or milkshaking. But if a track wants to continue to allow 2-year-olds to race on Lasix and doesn't care whether its races are graded, they don't have to ban the drug.

Once again, with the Graded Stakes Committee announcement this week, horsemen and some horseplayers and fans immediately sounded off in opposition.  The horsemen say it's not fair for 2-year-olds who race on Lasix in maiden and allowance races, then not be permitted to use the drug in a Graded race. Some horseplayers have said it's not fair to them, either, having to wager on a horse in a Graded Stakes that is likely coming off medication in his previous start.

There are two different approaches here, it seems to me. Horsemen and horseplayers are looking at this from a short-term standpoint. How does this change in medication policy affect them immediately. They are thinking about the next race.

The TOBA committee is thinking about the next generation of horses, or the generation after that. There have been a great number of anecdotal comments suggesting the Thoroughbred breed is getting weaker in North America, and many people believe it is because horses that are going to the breeding shed have built their racing reputations through the miracle of modern medicine. Because just about every horse now racing in North America gets a Lasix shot on the day it races, there is no telling which of those horses needed the drug to treat internal bleeding, and which ones got it because their trainers didn't want to compete on a playing field that wasn't level.

I can't blame either side here. While TOBA is trying to make a positive change that they hope will improve the breed over the long run, trainers are worried that banning Lasix will severely impact racing to the point that there may not be a need to breed Thoroughbred racehorses very far into the future.

While I understand both sides of this argument, I side with the Graded Stakes Committee. Someone has to be looking out for the best long-term interests of the game, and this reasonable decision does just that.

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