FRANKFORT — A panel of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission heard testimony Monday on the current front in the war on drugs in racing: the anti-bleeder medication furosemide.
Dozens of racing groups and other stakeholders were invited to comment to the state's Race-day Medication Committee on the use of the drug, known as Lasix or Salix for veterinary use.
The panel's chairman, Tracy Farmer, said he has not seen a more divisive issue for the industry.
"I'm glad everyone showed up today to speak instead of protesting," Farmer said. Several breeders and representatives of horsemen's groups and welfare organizations spoke, but no one from any Kentucky racetrack spoke.
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In the past year, the Breeders' Cup and the American Graded Stakes Committee have taken steps to limit the use of furosemide during racing next year, but there is no widespread industry consensus. The Association of Racing Commissioners' International proposed a five-year phase-out, but several groups have said they can't support that based on scientific evidence.
Farmer said after the daylong hearing that the panel has no timetable but it probably will make a recommendation to the full commission next year.
Kentucky would be the first American jurisdiction to act if a ban is passed. Furosemide is legal in North America but isn't used in Europe, Asia, Australia or the Middle East during races. In the United States, about 95 percent of all Thoroughbred racehorses (and about 98 percent in Kentucky) get a shot of the medication four hours before each race.
Exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage is common in racehorses all over the world, said Dr. Alice Stack, a Michigan State University veterinarian who is an expert on the condition.
"The horse is just an incredible athlete, unrivaled in the animal kingdom," she said.
The equine heart goes from pumping 28 to 40 beats a minute at rest to 250 beats a minute at a fast gallop, Stack said. At rest, the horse's heart pumps nine to 12 gallons of blood a minute but, at a gallop, it leaps to 53 to 80 gallons a minute.
That causes a tremendous increase in the blood pressure in the lungs, Stack said. "No other mammal experiences an increase like that."
And that almost inevitably causes bleeding during the stress of racing, she said.
Horses with less bleeding are much more likely to win or finish in the money, she said.
Furosemide reduces blood pressure in the lungs and reduces the severity of the bleeding, but it doesn't eliminate it, she said.
Trainers around the world commonly use furosemide in training even when they can't use it in racing, and they often use other therapies, including water deprivation, to try to achieve the same effects on race day.
Furosemide has been in use in horses since the late 1960s and, in the 1970s, racing programs began noting whether horses were running on it. In the past year, it has become controversial as industry groups moved to phase it out.
Matt Iuliano of The Jockey Club said that research has settled the question of whether Lasix works on bleeding, but other issues outweigh those concerns.
"If medication regulations were based solely on efficacy, we think the argument would end here, but it doesn't," Iuliano said. He said that opens the floodgates for other drugs.
"Salix certainly seems to have all the attributes of performance-enhancing drugs," he said. Although most horses have exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, he argued that the condition doesn't negatively affect their performance.
Iuliano said the effects on fans are as important as the effects on horses.
"Fans are basically becoming more and more intolerant of performance-enhancing drugs in sports," Iuliano said. Racing fans don't think the sport takes the drugs seriously and don't distinguish between different types of drugs, he said. "Clearly, we need to reverse these perceptions to attract fans needed to sustain long-term growth."
Those comments stirred up the Kentucky panelists, who questioned The Jockey Club's conclusions, particularly that the majority of horses could race successfully without medication.
"I have a real problem with the sudden performance-enhancing effect (discovered) in the last 20 years," said Dr. Foster Northrop, a veterinarian on the Kentucky panel.
Several groups, including the Jockeys Guild, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the Kentucky Association of Equine Practitioners and the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, support continued use of furosemide.
Iuliano said The Jockey Club, which is the registry for the Thoroughbred breed, has not determined how long-term furosemide use might affect the breed. But others who testified Monday said foreign breeders and buyers are already making judgments.
"The American breeding industry has been denigrated in international eyes because of race-day medication," said Craig Fravel, president of the Breeders' Cup, which voted to eliminate the use of furosemide for its 2-year-old championship races next year.
Dr. J. David Richardson, a Louisville surgeon who is on the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association's Graded Stakes Committee, said that some foreign breed registries have suggested that top U.S. races should not be given the same status as foreign stakes, called "black type" because of the way they are presented in sales catalogs.
"The potential damage to our breeding industry in Kentucky would be catastrophic if that happened," Richardson said. So his committee agreed to institute a pilot ban on furosemide for 2-year-old horses in 2012 in 49 graded-stakes races, which he called "a baby step" in the best young horses in the top races.
"We could not ignore the public-perception problem that exists because American races are not medication-free," he said.
Rick Hiles, president of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said that the sight of horses bleeding on the racetrack will create a greater public-perception problem than the one the industry is trying to address.
"I don't believe the public's crying out for us to stop using Lasix," Hiles said. "I think it's an excuse."
But Kathy Guillermo, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said five days of calls to her organization after the on-track death of Eight Belles at the 2008 Kentucky Derby indicate the scope of the fan disaffection.
"Perception isn't the problem. Reality is the problem," Guillermo said. The wonder, she said, is that it isn't worse. "Yesterday alone, five horses suffered catastrophic breakdowns."
PETA supports a ban on all race-day medication, she said. "We think racing can be done better and can be done humanely."
Breeders and horse owners including Arthur Hancock, Neil Howard and Bill Casner also spoke in support of moving toward an industry ban.
"Therapeutic drugs are given to a horse who is ailing or recovering. Is every horse in every race ill or injured? Europeans have a new name for the Breeders' Cup. You know what they're calling it? 'The Bleeders' Cup.' That's a sad commentary," Hancock said.
"Let's lead the way by becoming the first state to ban race-day medication."
Howard, general manager of Gainesway Farm, echoed that: "Banning of all race-day medication will be a bitter pill to swallow, but the future of our industry depends on running with the highest standard of public integrity."