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Maryland Jockey Club, in stormy meeting, says it won’t run races for 2-year-olds on Lasix

The Stronach Group, owner of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, told the Maryland Racing Commission on Thursday that it will cease scheduling races for 2-year-olds using Lasix, an anti-bleeding medication that critics say is vastly overused.

Lasix can reduce bleeding in horses’ lungs and cause them to lose weight. 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.

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“If the horsemen would like to run a drug-free race without Lasix, we’d be pleased to join them in scheduling that race,” said Alan Rifkin, an attorney for the Maryland Jockey Club, which oversees Pimlico and Laurel on Stronach’s behalf.

“The arc of history, the public’s interest and the best interest of racing support eliminating the use of the performance-enhancing drug known as Lasix — and starting with 2-year-olds is the appropriate process,” Rifkin said.

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Rifkin addressed the commission during a meeting held online and via a phone hookup because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Jockey Club signaled its intention last week, setting up a potential confrontation between the track operator and the state’s horsemen who say that the Racing Commission is already doing enough to regulate the diuretic.

Commission chairman Michael Algeo said the panel was not taking a position Thursday on Lasix use, and that he would refer the issue to a safety and welfare committee headed by R. Thomas Bowman, a commissioner.

But Algeo also said: “There’s a lot of argument on the other side from people in the industry I have a lot of respect for.”

He said Stronach’s action “put us in a very difficult position.”

Asked by Rifkin whether he believed the commission could require the Jockey Club to run races for 2-year-olds with Lasix, Algeo responded that there was no specific regulatory authority allowing it to do so.

Races involving 2-year-olds are much less common than others on race cards. Stronach has characterized the move for 2-year-olds as a first step.

The tone of the meeting was contentious at times.

Alan Foreman, who represents the state’s thoroughbred industry, said that the Jockey Club’s position amounted to “their way or the highway. Our industry is being held hostage once again.”

One commission member, David Hayden, said he noticed that Craig Fravel – Stronach’s chief executive officer for racing operations – had seemed to drop out of the meeting “because he probably had to go play golf.”

Fravel responded later to meeting participants that he had just been switching between his computer and phone and continued to follow the meeting.

Santa Anita Park in California — also owned by The Stronach Group — said in March 2019 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.

In April 2019, a group of prominent American horse racing organizations and tracks – including Kentucky Derby host Churchill Downs — pledged to begin phasing out the use of Lasix.

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On Wednesday, officials representing the Breeders’ Cup — one of thoroughbred racing’s richest and most prestigious events — wrote to the Maryland Racing Commission encouraging the elimination of Lasix use in 2-year-old races.

“If Maryland would like to continue to be considered a potential host site, we strongly urge adoption of the above stated Lasix reforms,” the letter said.

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