Dr. Larry Bramlage, renowned orthopedic surgeon specializing in Thoroughbred racehorses, said the time has come for those in the racing business to stop expecting the public to see things the same way horsemen do.
Speaking at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital's annual client education seminar this week, Bramlage was one of a panel of speakers fielding pre-selected audience questions. The veterinarian was asked to provide thoughts on the sentiment that medication is a significant factor negatively impacting the popularity of racing.
Bramlage, who served 22 years on the American Association of Equine Practitioners' On Call team, believes there are three basic things the industry must do with regards to medication to improve public perception.
Firstly, Bramlage said the sport needs to eliminate race-day furosemide – not because it doesn't work or he has serious concerns about its use but because the ship has sailed on convincing the public it is safe and necessary.
“I'm a big Lasix fan. It's good for the horse,” he said. “But we cannot withstand the bad publicity that it creates worldwide. Society is against drugs, and they can't tell the difference between heroin and Lasix.”
Bramlage is hopeful research set to be released later this year will demonstrate the administration time for furosemide could be pushed back further from the race without the drug losing effectiveness. Although he pointed out furosemide is quickly eliminated from the body, the drug could have lingering impacts. Bramlage used aspirin as an analogy: although it needs to be taken every few hours to reduce inflammation, one dose of it can increase bleeding for days, which is why people preparing for surgery are warned not to take it in the preceding week or two. Furosemide could similarly have impacts on the body well after much of it has been metabolized.
Secondly, Bramlage encouraged attendees to support the Barr-Tonko bill creating uniform oversight for the sport. Although he initially had reservations about earlier drafts of the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act, Bramlage said he has changed his stance, particularly since it would make laboratory testing and funding more consistent. The legislation, currently dormant, would put the non-governmental, independent United States Anti-Doping Agency in charge of a national uniform medication program.
“It's come a long way,” he said. “There are still some petrifying things about it; the Humane Society of the United States is involved, and I don't trust them as far as from here to the back of the room; however, they have huge political clout, and if you're going to pass it, we're probably going to need them.
“I have changed from being opposed to it to thinking it's our best chance. It's our best chance because 98-plus percent of our positives are laboratory screw-ups or mistakes in the barn. We can't get rid of the mistakes in the barn, but we can reduce them if there's not different race rules for every racing jurisdiction.”
Lastly, Bramlage said veterinarians and the racing industry need to get better at communicating with the public about improvements in welfare policy. Much of the racing public is under the impression other countries do a better job policing medication than the United States, but Bramlage said people would be surprised to learn what is actually permitted ahead of a foreign classic race. Two weeks out from the Epsom Derby, for example, Bramlage said a veterinarian can inject all a horse's joints without fear of penalty as long as the treatment is reported to authorities in Britain. A veterinarian treating a Kentucky Derby contender would be limited in whether and how they could inject a Thoroughbred's joint before the race, for fear of causing an overage.
“Our story is much better than we tell it,” he said. “We've already been beaten down by the PR machine. We have to make people understand that we're making progress.”
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