Kentucky took the lead on Wednesday in the battle over race-day medication with a widely anticipated move by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to ban use of Lasix in upper-level stakes races, beginning in 2014.
Gov. Steve Beshear praised the commission for taking the controversial vote, which he said was an important step.
"We must instill a sense of confidence in the betting public's mind that horses running in graded and listed stakes on Kentucky tracks are doing so on their own abilities," Beshear said. "I am hopeful that other racing jurisdictions across the country will follow suit."
The drug furosemide, called Lasix or Salix, is used as an anti-bleeder medication but is also a potent diuretic.
Racing commission chairman Bob Beck said that for him the vote came down to one thing: "It's performance-enhancing. You run better with it than without," Beck told the commission.
Beck said that after a move failed in April to ban Lasix in all Kentucky races, the commission listened to opponents and crafted a more narrow rule that allows the horses in lower-level claiming races — those less likely to become breeding stock — to continue to use Lasix for humane reasons.
The phased-in ban, which begins with 2-year-olds, was pushed back to start in 2014 rather than next year to give the rule time to take effect and to allow other states time to join Kentucky. New York regulators also have been taking public comment on a similar measure, and industry groups that represent breeders are lobbying for action nationally.
Beck said he thinks other states will follow Kentucky.
"I don't think we're going to be an island," he said, and trainers' dire predictions that horses will flee Kentucky are based on that.
Beck also said that the state will not wait until 2014 to revisit the issue, if necessary.
In Kentucky, the argument now will move to the General Assembly. The rule must go through the legislative review process, which could take months and includes another opportunity for public comment. Horsemen who opposed the ban have said they will take their fight to lawmakers with the hopes of killing the rule in Frankfort.
Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs, said Wednesday the vote "can't be good for racing" or for the tracks.
"Kentucky's at a competitive disadvantage to other states with regard to racing. Obviously, we don't have purses that are enhanced by casino wagering. We're seeing a foal crop that is diminishing across the country, so the competition for horses is increasing," Flanery said. "Putting us on an island, putting us at a competitive disadvantage to recruit horses to come to Kentucky, is not something that makes sense at this time."
Despite months of discussion, Wednesday's vote was close: seven commissioners supported it; five opposed, with Tom Ludt abstaining. Two commissioners (Dr. Jerry Yon, chairman of the Equine Drug Research Council, and Michael Pitino), who were on opposite sides of a previous Lasix vote, were absent.
Supporters were Beck, the racing commission chairman; vice chairman Tracy Farmer; Ned Bonnie; Wade Houston; Betsy Lavin; Alan Leavit; and new appointee John Phillips. Opponents were Tom Conway, Frank Jones, Franklin Kling Jr., Dr. Foster Northrop and Burr Travis.
Ludt, who is also chairman of the Breeders' Cup board, abstained from voting because he wanted to get other states on board beforehand.
"I'd love to delay it and get two or three states to sign up and then we'd have been set," Ludt said afterward in explaining his non-vote.
Beck said he began thinking seriously about what needed to be done after a consultant's report presented last summer by The Jockey Club showed that the sport is losing fans rapidly and cannot gain new ones in part because of blurred public perceptions on legal race-day medication and illegal drug use.
Farmer, who chaired a separate committee that held a hearing on Lasix, said the commission had to take the action for the good of the sport. Breeders, like Farmer, are concerned that Europeans and other foreign buyers will avoid American-bred bloodlines and discount top-level American races, called graded stakes.
"We cannot succeed as a sport with drugs," Farmer said. "This is the right vote at the right time."
Several commissioners made strong arguments against the move, which makes Kentucky the only state to outlaw a medication now given to more than 90 percent of horses in U.S. races.
Northrop, the only veterinarian on the commission, said that urban American tracks are different from Europe, which does not allow Lasix use.
"Horses in this country need Lasix," Northrop said. "It's a totally different environment than the countryside of England and France."
Jones said that financial losses are likely, with horses fleeing the state and exacerbating the difficulty in filling races. That will hurt betting handle, which will reduce purses and drive the spiral downward, he argued.
"I'm disturbed that we had a separate Lasix committee, which didn't provide any report, ... that we've ignored our own drug research council's opinion," he said. "And that there's been no objective commission study by the commission on how this will affect the economics and the horse population."
Travis urged everyone to be prepared to be "agile" if the predicted economic train wreck for Kentucky racing materializes.
"This vote should be about the good of the horse," Travis said, "not the good of the New York (based) Jockey Club."