It is hard to think of an issue in the Thoroughbred racing industry that has been more contentious or long lasting than the use of drugs. Most recently, the battle has centered on the use of race-day drugs; and two of racing's most important states, Kentucky and New York, are considering changes to their rules.
The New York State Racing and Wagering Board recently invited public comment on the race day drug furosemide (Lasix/Salix) and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has proposed a phase-out of the use of furosemide on race day in graded or listed stakes races beginning in 2013 (representing only 4.7 percent of all Thoroughbred races in the commonwealth).
Over many years, The Jockey Club, located in Lexington and New York, has devoted countless resources to this dilemma, commissioning studies and supporting national organizations such as the Racing Medication & Testing Consortium.
We have created and made public a database of Thoroughbred regulatory rulings and proposed a set of racing medication rules that feature, among other things, a gradual phase-out of race-day drugs and a penalty system with sanctions that go as far as a lifetime ban from the sport.
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Our stance on the use of drugs in horse racing has not wavered one bit, and for that we offer no apology: we believe that the overuse of drugs endangers our human and equine athletes, threatens the integrity of our sport and erodes consumer confidence in our game.
Regarding the drug furosemide, The Jockey Club has continually advocated for a gradual phase-out to properly gauge the impact it will have on horses, the horsemen and racetracks.
We genuinely appreciate and respect the views of those who object to any change in the current rules pertaining to furosemide. Clearly, they are doing what they believe to be in the best interests of the horses. But their perspective may be limited.
In the atmosphere of today's sports world, where the acronym performance-enhancing drugs regularly litters reports on baseball, track and field, football, cycling, etc., no sport should expect its public, or its participants, to embrace a philosophy of performance enhancement.
The biggest difference between the U.S. and a growing list of our international colleagues is that our rules permit the administration of drugs on race day.
In Hong Kong, for example, the philosophical resistance to Lasix lies in the belief that they should not "pharmacologically adapt the horse to the demands of the industry." Hong Kong has just 4.6 bleeding incidents for every 1,000 runners, with only 35 horses retired each year due to bleeding issues.
The proper treatment of animals is a high priority to the public, now more than ever. The recent multi-part investigative series by The New York Times, which focuses largely on drugs in horse racing, and the reaction to those articles, is a prime example. The public can hardly be expected to distinguish between a syringe that provides the proper therapy and one that introduces chicanery.
Last summer, The Jockey Club engaged the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company to review the status of our sport and make recommendations for remedial action. Its analysis concluded that the sport is losing fans at a rate of 4 percent a year, and that concerns over animal safety/welfare and medication were constantly among the most significant themes.
Of current racing fans, 78 percent said they would stop betting if they knew horses were not treated well; 38 percent said they would bet more if they knew horses were not given drugs, and 36 percent said drugs is one of the top three issues facing racing.
The Jockey Club, in response to a request from New York State Racing and Wagering Board, recently provided a letter from chairman Ogden Mills Phipps, strongly urging new rules that would ban the use of furosemide. (www.thejockeyclub.com/pdfs/nys_letter.pdf).
We now urge the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to move forward with its proposed phase-out of the use of furosemide on race day in graded or listed stakes races beginning in 2013. Kentucky should not be an island on the subject of drug policy reform. It now has before it the opportunity to be a leader in the growing movement for clean competition.