The Maryland Jockey Club announced Thursday that it has informed the Maryland Racing Commission that it will ban the use of Lasix for 2-year-olds at the state’s tracks on race day.
The Jockey Club plans to begin scheduling races under the new rules after the Racing Commission’s next meeting June 25 and to extend the Lasix ban to older horses next year.
The move sets up a potential confrontation between the track operator and the state’s horsemen, who say the Racing Commission is already doing enough to regulate the diuretic, which has long been used to prevent or reduce bleeding.
“The time has come to phase out Lasix beginning with 2-year-old horses,” said Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of The Stronach Group and 1/ST, which owns both Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course. “We are following through on 1/ST Racing’s commitment to put horse and rider safety and welfare at the forefront. We believe in the principle that horses should only be racing free of medication. By taking this important step together, the Maryland racing community will become stronger and provide the right foundation for our sport to progress into the future.”
The company has already imposed similar bans at its tracks in Florida and California.
The Racing Commission, which regulates the use of medication in the industry, has received a letter from The Stronach Group outlining its intended new policy. “We have it and are reviewing it,” said Mike Hopkins, executive director for the commission. “No further comment.”
It’s not clear whether the track needs permission from the Racing Commission to move forward or whether the issue will be up for a vote at the regulatory panel’s June 25 meeting.
In other locations, the company has prohibited Lasix in its race-day rules without a change in state law, said Craig Fravel, chief executive officer for 1/ST Racing.
“I would be comfortable if the Racing Commission said nothing,” he said. “It’d be great if they said, ‘Yeah, sure, go ahead.‘”
Stronach Group officials say Lasix is now widely used as a performance enhancer rather than a therapeutic treatment.
“The clear weight of evidence shows that what began decades ago as a limited therapeutic to assist the few horses that were problem bleeders has become a crutch for those looking for a competitive edge,” Fravel said. “We recognize that good people have different views on either side of this equation. But we feel very strongly about our view on it.”
He added that it’s time to move forward in Maryland because trainers have reached the point in the calendar when they’re ready to race 2-year-olds.
But the state’s horsemen don’t see the issue the same way and are frustrated the Jockey Club has not scheduled any races for 2-year-olds as its parent company moves toward implementing the new Lasix policy.
“The horsemen have been asking for weeks why they were not carding 2-year-old races,” said Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “A lot of the barns are full of 2-year-olds expecting to race here. If [the Jockey Club] had no intention of doing so, they should have said so quite some time ago, and the horses could have gone elsewhere. ... Irrespective of how this plays out, it’s the way it’s been handled; it does not speak well.”
The MTHA and the Maryland Horse Breeders Association issued a joint letter in April 2019, opposing The Stronach Group’s planned Lasix policy.
“The proposed ban, if implemented, is an experiment capable of resulting in irreparable harm to many of our horses; most importantly 2-year-olds,” the letter read. “Deprivation of a safe and effective medication for our horses is totally contrary to our commitment to the health, safety and welfare of the horse, and veterinary scientific experts and researchers agree.
“To be clear, our joint position on the use of Lasix on race day is, and remains, that absent an effective alternative treatment ... we support the current strict and uniformly enforced regulatory protocols for the administration of Lasix on race day.”
Foreman said a small group of horsemen and breeders met with Belinda Stronach around Preakness time last year and came away believing the sides would have continued dialogue on the issue. No follow-up discussions took place, he said.
Stronach Group officials argue that greater restrictions on Lasix are the wave of the future for American racetracks.
In April 2019, a coalition of track operators and racing associations announced plans to phase out the drug. These included:
• The Stronach Group’s Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields (California) and Gulfstream Park (Florida)
• Del Mar and Los Alamitos (California)
• Churchill Downs Inc. and Keeneland (Kentucky)
• New York Racing Association (New York)
• Lone Star Park (Texas)
• Oaklawn Park (Arkansas)
• Breeders’ Cup Limited
• Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders’ Association (TOBA)
• American Graded Stakes Committee of TOBA
• Kentucky Thoroughbred Association
Under this program, which began Jan. 1, 2-year-old horses are not permitted to be treated with Lasix within 24 hours of a race. Beginning in 2021, the same prohibition will extend to all horses participating in any stakes race at coalition tracks listed above.