The Lasix Issue: Will the RCI Redeem Itself?

mulligan is a second chance to perform an action, usually after the first chance went wrong
through bad luck or a blunder.

                                                                                                                                        — Wikipedia

It exploded like a bombshell and landed without warning on the U.S. horse racing landscape.

That was eight years ago. March 28, 2011, to be precise. On that date the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI) issued a press release calling for a five-year phaseout of race-day Lasix (furosemide) in all horses racing in the United States.

The RCI press release didn’t mince words.

William Koester, the incoming chairman of the RCI and chairman of the Ohio State Racing Commission, stated, “Today over 99% of Thoroughbred racehorses and 70% of Standardbred racehorses have a needle stuck in them four hours before a race. That just does not pass the smell test with the public or anyone else except horse trainers who think it necessary to win a race. I’m sure the decision makers at the time meant well when these drugs were permitted, however this decision has forced our jurisdictions to juggle threshold levels as horseman become more desperate to win races and has given horse racing a black eye.”

The chairman of the RCI at that time was Dan Hartman of Colorado. His statement provided a unified front within RCI leadership, stating the need “to bring North American racing policies in line with what is going on in other parts of the world like Europe and Hong Kong.”

Could this really happen? Would the regulators take on the most polarizing issue in the sport?

Remember that it was racing commissions across the U.S. that created the permissive medication culture in the first place. This was done by conceding to horsemen’s demands in the 1960s through the 1990s. State by state, inch by inch, the tide rolled to more and more drug use before post time. First was bute, then Lasix, followed by a plentitude of what would become known as bleeder adjuncts. This last group consists of mostly unproven remedies to help horses that “bled through Lasix.”

The tide has turned back to some extent. For example, bute became a drug to be used only 24 hours prior to a race, and bleeder adjuncts are now limited to just a few states.

Though, back in 2011, the possibility that regulators might phase out Lasix took center stage. The question remained: Would they or wouldn’t they?

Ray Paulick, the prescient publisher of the Paulick Report, appeared to be the first public prognosticator. His headline on a March 28, 2011, read, RCI: Tough talk on drugs, but only talk?

Mr.  Paulick led with this question, “Can a racing organization with a history of not getting very much done accomplish something as dramatic as eliminating all race day medications from the sport in the United States?”

He finished the column with his answer, “It’s a nice thought, but I don’t think most state regulators have the intestinal fortitude to make this change. It will be business as usual, no matter what the RCI leaders say.”

And so, it was.

The phaseout never happened.

The phrases “does not pass the smell test,” “desperate to win races,” and “giving horse racing a black eye” are not mine. Those came from the RCI when it made its push to phase out Lasix — only eight short years ago, before it stumbled off the moral high ground.

Now it’s 2019, and times have changed.

The tragic, and for now, inexplicable horse deaths at Santa Anita (22 deaths as of March 22, 2019) are changing the way the public and the industry view our sport. The headlines from the Los Angeles Times to The New York Times and media outlets between the coasts have highlighted the vulnerability of horse racing as a sport that is inconsistent with the morality and sensitivities of the citizenry of the 21st century.

One vulnerable issue is Lasix.

That is why The Stronach Group’s bold reforms in response to the tragedy at Santa Anita included the end of the use of race-day Lasix. So, like it or not, the issue is back on the table. And this put regulators in the limelight, again. The RCI, through its model rule process, makes recommendations to racing commissions as to industry best practices. It has the ability to revisit the Lasix issue and revise its rules in a just a few months. That would make a nationwide policy in sync with the Santa Anita ban, which begins with 2-year-olds of 2020.

How will the RCI respond?

Will it cravenly cave due to a lack of consensus? Or will it respond in a manner consistent with its beliefs stated in 2011 that “(Lasix) just does not pass the smell test with the public or anyone else except horse trainers who think it necessary to win a race”?

The RCI has a shot at redemption. What will it do with its mulligan?

Hole-in-one or triple bogey?


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