On April 18, 2019, a coalition of leading Thoroughbred racing associations and organizations announced a new horse racing initiative that commits to eliminating the use of the medication Furosemide (Lasix) for 2-year-olds in 2020 and in stakes races held at their racetracks beginning in 2021.
Coalition racetracks that have signed on to this initiative include all tracks owned or operated by Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI), the New York Racing Association Inc. (NYRA), and The Stronach Group, as well as Del Mar, Keeneland, Lone Star Park, Remington Park, Los Alamitos Racecourse (Thoroughbred), Oaklawn Park, and Tampa Bay Downs. Taken together, these tracks represent 86% of the stakes races assigned graded or listed status in the United States in 2018. The coalition tracks stated that they will work diligently with their respective horsemen's associations and racing commissions toward implementing this effort.
This effort is commendable. Although, it should not have had to come to this. State racing commissions should have enacted such a ban long ago. But it is refreshing to see the tracks have put their collective foot down on such an important matter of integrity.
Where this effort leads, especially within the time frame proposed, is questionable. But what is a sure bet is that before all the shouting is over (and, yes, there is likely to be shouting — and maybe lawsuits) the racing industry’s dysfunctional regulatory structure will be exposed for all to see.
This will come as no surprise to industry insiders.
Unfortunately, this drama will be played out in front of a national audience unfamiliar with any sport that is regulated on a state-by-state basis. Each state commission, all of which are members of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI), will decide for itself what to do about Lasix – it will not be a collaborative effort. Leaving the public to wonder how a so called “professional sport” can operate in such a manner.
Injecting a drug into a horse just hours before a race has already captured the interest of the national press and animal welfare groups. You can add to this dire situation the unpredictability of more tragic events occurring during the review phase. Just last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) renewed calls for Santa Anita Park to suspend racing for the balance of the meet after three more horses died in a nine-day period.
What is predictable is additional scrutiny by Congress, and the accompanying media attention will not be flattering.
On a positive note, much of the interest in Congress will focus on the Horseracing Integrity Act (HIA), which is an ideal foil to the state-by-state debacle we are about to witness. This is because the HIA is a cure to all the industry shortcomings that will be on display, most important of which are the lack of central authority and uniformity regarding the use of drugs and medications in Thoroughbreds.
Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide
Most racing commissions are reluctant to consider, let alone decide, anything controversial unless the stakeholder groups in their state agree. That is not likely to happen. My more than 25 years of experience as a state racing regulator tells me not to bet on it.
Although nothing is uniform when it comes to racing regulation, I would be surprised if tracks are able to bypass their individual state racing commissions in order to achieve their partial Lasix ban. That’s because the tracks in the coalition have already stated their position publicly. It will be difficult for the racing commissions in those states not to consider their request for a partial Lasix ban. Those states include New York, California, Kentucky, Maryland, Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Arkansas.
Now each track, depending on the laws and rules in its state, will try to either adopt house rules or “no Lasix” as a condition of its races or petition its state racing commission to amend its rules on the use of Lasix on race day. If they opt for the former, it is a safe bet that the horsemen will sprint to the commission office and ask its regulators to intercede on their behalf.
Two-year-old horses affected by the proposed ban will begin to race next April. So, the coalition tracks and their state commissions have less than a year to figure this out. To accomplish this goal on a widespread basis, any rulemaking process should have begun the day before yesterday. By pressing for a change to begin in 2020, the tracks have effectively bypassed the RCI model rule making process. No way the RCI can move that quickly. Even if they were motivated to do so, which they are not, building a consensus is likely remote.
So, either way, we are in for a state-by-state media roadshow.
How will RCI members respond? Who knows?
As I wrote recently in a piece titled, The Lasix Issue: Will the RCI Redeem Itself? the RCI position as taken from its press release in 2011 was decidedly against race-day medication:
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 RCI has flipped-flopped. They are no longer taking the high road, and I wrote about this in a recent column: RCI’s scare tactic press releases on Lasix ban: disingenuous, ill-informed and just plain shameful. Expect to hear “the sky is falling” type of hype regarding a Lasix ban leading to inhumane practices, including the starving of our horses.
Spotlight on dysfunction
We are on the precipice of witnessing an unrelenting and unforgiving media excoriate on U.S. horse racing for permitting different rules on the sport’s most controversial issue.
Those in the general public may just roll their eyes.
On the other hand, they might just decide that horse racing is simply an antiquated sport whose values on animal welfare call for its dissolution.
You might ask who is responsible for all of this?
Those who make the rules, of course.