View From The Eighth Pole: Lasix Debate Shouldn’t Impede Progress Over Racing’s Integrity, Structure

by | 06.26.2018 | 1:37pm
At a 2018 hearing on the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017, a panel representing various horse racing interests answered questions from a Congressional subcommittee

The vast majority of Thoroughbred horsemen in the United States and Canada have convinced themselves that racing as we know it would not survive without every horse in their care getting an injection of the anti-bleeding diuretic furosemide (better known as Lasix) four hours before competition.

I don't blame them. Most trainers today have never worked in an environment where the race-day administration of Lasix wasn't legal. It doesn't matter to them that the sport does just fine without race-day medication in Europe, Asia, Australia and an increasing number of Latin American countries. Racing in many of those international jurisdictions is, in fact, thriving.

These trainers have convinced themselves racing in North America is different than it is in the rest of the world. Nothing is going to change their minds, just as societal debates over gun control or abortion only cause those on either side to dig their heels in deeper.

It pains me to say this, but it's time for the anti-Lasix advocates to move on and focus on more important areas of the drug problem our industry faces. I say this as someone who is embarrassed over our industry's inability to do what the rest of the world is perfectly capable of doing and compete drug-free on race-day.

I wrote something similar in 2012 after the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and Breeders' Cup were steamrolled in their efforts to phase Lasix out of all American Graded Stakes and Breeders' Cup races. At that time, I said federal legislation was the only way forward. I'm saying now even that won't work: the opposition is just too strident.

If the anti-Lasix language was removed from the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017, one would think more trainers would get behind the legislation currently supported by the Breeders' Cup, Consignors and Commercial Breeders Association, The Jockey Club, The Jockey Club of Canada, International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, Keeneland, Kentucky Thoroughbred Association/Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and the Water Hay Oats Alliance, among others.

Trainers who want truly uniform rules when it comes to medication policy, testing and enforcement should support the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017, which would establish national oversight of those areas under the non-profit, non-governmental United States Anti-Doping Agency. Trainers who race in multiple states and are subject to the whims of various racing commissions or faceless bureaucrats should support the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017. Trainers who believe they are being squeezed out of the business by cheaters should support the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017. Trainers who think some of their peers are using currently undetectable performance enhancing drugs should support the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017.

The current system is not working. State regulators appear to spend most of their time and energy punishing horsemen for minor overages of therapeutic medications. There is great disparity from one state to another on the efficacy of testing, based not only on lab efficiencies but on their contracts with state government. The quantity and quality of “boots on the ground” investigators is uneven across the racing landscape, as is the enthusiasm in investing in security cameras and out-of-competition testing. Coordination among labs and regulators is not as robust as it should be.

In recent months we've become aware of medication violations that have been or likely will be tossed out because of racing commission employees who weren't following rules in the test barn or along the chain of custody. We've heard of positive tests for Class 1 drugs swept under the rug, licensees caught in the act of cheating allowed to continue to ply their trade and horses switching from one program trainer to another during license suspensions. These transgressions run across all racing breeds.

Well-intentioned efforts to bring all states on board with a voluntary National Uniform Medication Policy have not been 100 percent successful – and probably never will be, given the disparity in state budgets for regulating the sport and the influence that some stakeholders have over regulatory proceedings. Some states may adopt the rules as written, then will struggle to adapt as they are revised from year to year. Others have to go through so many hoops it takes years to get approvals from regulators or state legislators.

My biggest beef with the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017 is that it doesn't go far enough. Even if it were to pass, individuals would still need to be licensed in all racing states in which they participate, stewards' decisions would still be interpreted differently from one racing jurisdiction to another, and stakes schedules and coordination of post times would still be willy-nilly.

It is the structure – or lack thereof – that has contributed to American racing's decline as much as anything over the last 30 years. Everyone seems to be in charge, yet no one is in charge. The most successful racing countries put the most authority under a single agency.

The Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017 merely addresses one branch – though a weight-bearing one – of a dysfunctional tree. Nothing is more important than the sport's integrity.

As for the horsemen in North America who insist that they continue to be allowed to race their horses on Lasix and show their indifference for how the rest of the world conducts their sport, that may be a matter for international racing authorities to consider.

The International Cataloguing Standards Committee establishes uniform rules on whether a country's black type or graded/group races should be recognized for the purposes of sale catalogues throughout the world. If the U.S. and Canada continue to be the only countries out-of-step on race-day medication, it may be time for the ICSC to seriously consider disqualifying our races for black type and graded status.

That's my view from the eighth pole.

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