A group of prominent American horse racing organizations and tracks — including Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, site of the Preakness stakes — pledged Thursday to begin phasing out the use of Lasix, an anti-bleeding medication critics say is overused.
Tracks signing onto the initiative include Churchill Downs and Belmont Park, hosts of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, respectively. Along with the Preakness, those events form the sport’s prestigious Triple Crown.
Also joining is Maryland’s Laurel Park, which — like Pimlico — is owned by The Stronach Group, a Canadian horse racing conglomerate.
Lasix can reduce bleeding in horses' lungs and cause them to lose weight.
“This is a huge moment that signals a collective move to evolve this legacy sport,” Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of The Stronach Group, said in a prepared statement. “While there is still more work to be done, these reforms are a good start.”
The debate over the medication’s frequent usage is complicated because there is uncertainty about whether it should be considered therapeutic or performance-enhancing — or both — and whether repeated use contributes to breakdowns. Many trainers say Lasix allows healthy horses to exert themselves without bleeding. But critics argue Lasix is often used as a performance enhancer — or to mask the presence of other drugs — and that most horses don't need it.
“I think it’s a complicated issue,” said trainer Mike Trombetta, who is based at Fair Hill and will have a horse, Win Win Win, in next month’s Kentucky Derby. “You try to do one thing (involving medications) and it affects something else.”
Trombetta and Graham Motion, a leading national trainer also based at Fair Hill, said Thursday that it would be premature to comment on the initiative because they were just hearing about it.
Under the initiative, 2-year old horses would not be allowed to be given Lasix within 24 hours of a race, beginning on Jan. 1, 2020.
The same prohibition would extend to all horses in any stakes race at participating tracks beginning in 2021.
Other participating tracks include Aqueduct Racetrack, Arlington International Racecourse, Del Mar, Fair Grounds, Gulfstream Park, Gulfstream Park West, Keeneland, Lone Star Park and Remington Park, Los Alamitos (Thoroughbred), Oaklawn Park, Presque Isle Downs, Saratoga Race Course and Tampa Bay Downs.
Santa Anita Park in California — also owned by The Stronach Group — said in March that it was banning the use of Lasix as well as other drugs and whips on racing days after a spike in horse deaths at the track.
“It took 23 dead horses on one track, but we were sure that the racing industry could change if it wanted to and phasing out Lasix for stakes races and 2-year-olds is an excellent first step in what must be an ongoing overhaul of racing rules nationwide,” Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said in a statement.
New York Racing Association president and CEO David O'Rourke called it “a progressive and unified approach” to race-day medication.
Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen said, “This is a significant and meaningful step to further harmonize American racing with international standards.”
PETA is urging a ban on Lasix for all races, in addition to banning all medications in the two weeks before a race, banning trainers with multiple medication violations, mandating complete public transparency of injury and medication records, ending the use of whips, and switching to high-quality synthetic tracks.
Associated Press contributed to this story.