These are strange days. A novel coronavirus has turned racetracks into studios for transmission of signals to the masses. Hopefully, all of us are staying safe and keeping our fingers crossed that racing will continue across the country. Some tracks, unfortunately, are shutting down live racing. As I write this, word from Maryland is the racing is shut down completely – at least for the time being. Keeneland just announce the cancellation of its spring race meet.
I addition to creating studio racetracks, the year 2020 will be a year like no other in over a generation due to a reform movement regarding equine medication policy.
When one thinks of the medication policy in U.S. horse racing, the three issues that most readily come to mind are (1) the use of furosemide (trade name Lasix) on race day, (2) the use of a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NDAID) the day before the race, and (3) routine corticosteroid injections a few days prior to race day, time of treatment depending on the specific drug. We will start seeing widespread changes in each of these policies in 2020.
With spring just around the corner, my focus in this article is the banning of Lasix in races for 2-year-olds.
It all began on April 18, 2019, when a group of racetracks pledged to ban the drug in races for 2-year-olds in 2020. The coalition of tracks include all those 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.
These same tracks have also pledged to eliminate Lasix in all stake races beginning in 2021. Taken together, these tracks represent 86% of the stakes races assigned graded or listed status in the United States in 2018. Industry groups supporting this effort include Breeders' Cup Limited, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and its American Graded Stakes Committee, and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association.
So, how might the ban unfold this spring?
Here is a list of all tracks that raced 2-year-olds prior to June 1 last year. The date indicates when the first 2-year-old race was conducted in 2019. In bold are the tracks that pledged to ban Lasix in 2-year-old races.
March 30 Sunland Park
April 4 Keeneland Race Course
April 11 Gulfstream Park
April 13 Turf Paradise
April 17 Aqueduct
April 18 Laurel Race Course
April 23 Indiana Grand
May 1 Churchill Downs
May 2 Belmont Park
May 9 Pimlico Race Course
May 10 Santa Anita Park
May 11 Evangeline Downs
May 11 Golden Gate Fields
May 11 Lone Star Park
May 12 Sun Ray Park
May 17 Prairie Meadows
May 18 Belterra
May 19 Ruidoso Downs
May 20 Presque Isles Downs
May 22 Delaware Park
Of the 20 tracks that ran 2-year-olds prior to June 1 last year, 11 have pledged not to run 2-year-olds on Lasix this year. But don’t expect a flood on horses racing without Lasix this spring. There is simply very little 2-year-old racing taking place in April and May. It is the start of the season but far from the height of the season. For example, last year 111 races for 2-year-olds were run prior to June 1. Contrast that to the three-day Labor Day weekend, when 82 such races were held.
Track rules vs. commission rules
Without a national rulemaking body in U.S. racing, a track’s desire to ban Lasix is dependent on the prevailing pari-mutuel laws, rules, and policies in its particular state. And these laws, rules, and policies vary. Rulemaking is not a simple process in many states. It can be cumbersome and time consuming. That is especially true if the subject matter is controversial.
Has anyone ever said that Lasix was controversial?
A back-up plan to a commission rule might be an opportunity in some states to implement medication reform with a rule determined by the track or another track-based initiative. It’s called a track rule. In practice a track rule could be in effect until the commission can finalize its own rulemaking process. Some racing commissions —we don’t know which ones yet — might not approve a Lasix ban of any kind.
The track rule approach is not without risks if challenged, let’s say in this case, by a horsemen’s association. So, this could get interesting in some states.
For now, let’s take a look a snapshot of a few major racing states.
The Big 3
California: Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields will be racing 2-year-olds without Lasix this year. Both tracks are owned by The Stronach Group, which has an agreement with the Thoroughbred Owners of California to race 2-year-olds without Lasix in 2020. The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) has a rule that permits this type of agreement. The particular agreement between The Stronach Group and the horsemen was approved by the CHRB at its December 2019 meeting. These are the only Thoroughbred tracks that will race this spring in California. In addition, the CHRB has a proposed rule in the administrative pipeline that would ban Lasix for all foals of 2018 (2-year-olds of 2020) and each subsequent foal crop. According to Rick Baedeker, CHRB’s executive director, this proposed rule should be ready for board action in either March or April. If approved, the rule would be effective on July 1, 2020. If that happens, all 2-year-old races will be Lasix-free in California this year.
On December 9, 2019, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) unanimously passed a Lasix ban for 2-year-olds beginning in 2020 and for all stake races beginning in 2021. So, it’s a done deal in Kentucky. Right? Not so fast. In Kentucky there is a legislative review process after a rule is passed by the commission. That process can take approximately eight months. That process began on February 14, 2020.
So, what is Churchill Downs (and Keeneland fall meet) going to do? Yes, track rules.
Unlike the KHRC, there is no formal rule approved or even pending before the New York Gaming Board (NYGB). There are, however, ongoing discussions on the board regarding this issue.
In the meantime, NYRA is working closely with the NYGB on this matter and will be fulfilling its commitment to card Lasix-free races beginning this spring. NYRA’s approach is to embed the Lasix prohibition within the condition of all 2-year-old races.
So, it’s an interesting issue and interesting times. I’ll be bringing you additional updates throughout the year.