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Pimlico owners want state to ban drug widely used on horses on race day | COMMENTARY

The owners of Pimlico Race Course want to ban the use of the drug Lasix in horse racing.
The owners of Pimlico Race Course want to ban the use of the drug Lasix in horse racing. (Nick Wass/AP)

For the past several decades, there has been no place in professional sports for the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) by participating athletes. If PEDs are neither acceptable nor necessary, why then is the anti-bleeding medication Lasix still being used in Maryland’s thoroughbred racing industry?

Use of Lasix (technically known as Furosemide) was originally allowed by the Maryland Racing Commission in the 1970s, but only following a veterinarian’s examination and confirmation that the horse had such a severe medical condition called exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage, commonly known as “severe bleeding.” This condition requires the administration of Lasix as a therapeutic medication. It is a medical fact that less than 5% of all North American thoroughbreds require Lasix.

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Yet the use of Lasix, which began decades ago as a therapeutic medication for that small percentage of horses, has become so pervasive, overused and abused that it is now commonly administered to virtually every thoroughbred horse as a performance-enhancing drug. This is because Lasix is a diuretic that causes the horse to lose between 10 and 20 pounds of fluid within hours compared to those horses who are raced without Lasix. As everyone in the horse industry knows, the weight a horse carries directly affects its speed. It is as simple as that — Lasix is being used as a performance-enhancing drug — and it must stop. Healthy horses do not need Lasix to race.

As part of the national movement to phase out Lasix that was initiated in April 2019 by the thoroughbred horse industries in California, Florida, Kentucky and New York, we are calling on the Maryland racing industry and the Maryland Racing Commission to take the important and necessary step to prioritize equine health and safety and ban the use of Lasix as a race day medication. In so doing, Maryland would join those other tier 1 racing states, the Breeders’ Cup and every other major racing territory around the world — including England, Ireland, France, Hong Kong, Australia and Japan — which run Lasix-free.

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The Maryland Jockey Club is fully committed to the long-term success and sustainability of the racing industry in Maryland, and this success must be achieved without compromising the safety and welfare of our beloved equine athletes.

The investment into equine health and safety is not only the right thing to do, it is crucial to the future of thoroughbred horse racing in the state. The recently passed Racing and Community Development Act 2020, which paves the way for an exciting and viable future for the Maryland racing industry, recognizes that industry stakeholders including the owners, trainers, breeders, jockeys and racetrack operators must work together to establish a new standard of equine health, safety and welfare.

The elimination of Lasix is an important factor in elevating the standard of care for our equine athletes. The safety and welfare protocols implemented in California offer a helpful case study. At Santa Anita Park, with the support of the California Horse Racing Board, there are tangible indicators that the investment in equine health is paying off. Certainly, there is more work to be done, but Santa Anita Park has experienced:

  • A 52% decrease in racing fatalities per 1,000 starts;
  • A 71% decrease in total racing fatalities;
  • A 16% decrease in total training fatalities per 1,000 starts (including non-musculoskeletal fatalities);
  • A 49% decrease in the total number of training fatalities associated with musculoskeletal injuries per 1,000 starts;
  • A 50% total decrease in fatalities related to musculoskeletal injuries in training,

As the well-respected Maryland trainer H. Graham Motion recently said in a letter from the prestigious Water Hay Oats Alliance to the Maryland Racing Commission: “The time has come when Lasix should be phased out and starting with two-year-old races makes sense.”

The time is now to move Maryland racing into the future. We call upon all industry stakeholders to come together in a unified manner to phase out the use of Lasix on race day, beginning immediately with two-year-old horses.

Belinda Stronach (Belinda.stronach@stronachgroup.com) is chairman and president of The Stronach Group and 1/ST, which owns Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course.

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