Racing panel declines to ban Lasix

Dullahan's trainer, Dale Romans, said his Blue Grass Stakes winner was looking great the morning after.
Dullahan's trainer, Dale Romans, said his Blue Grass Stakes winner was looking great the morning after. Herald-Leader

A bid to ban race-day use of the anti-bleeder medication known as Lasix stumbled Monday, but the effort is likely to be on track again next month.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission deadlocked Monday in a 7-to-7 tie on a phased-in ban of race-day use of furosemide, beginning next year with 2-year-old horses.

The move would have made Kentucky the only U.S. racing jurisdiction so far to implement a ban and would be a major change in the sport. More than 90 percent of all horses in America run on Lasix.

But Lasix use has been under fire for more than a year as the industry weighs whether to join the rest of the world in outlawing anti-bleeder drugs during races, and the issue isn't going away.

"I don't think it's dead," said Bob Beck, KHRC chairman. He said the commission probably will vote next month on a more limited version.

Minutes after the tie vote, commissioner Tom Ludt, who opposed the across-the-board prohibition, brought up an effort to implement it only in top-level races. But the commission tabled consideration for 30 days to give them time to study the potential change.

Ludt, who also is chairman of the Breeders' Cup, said the limited ban has more widespread support in the industry.

His version apparently would continue to allow Lasix use in all horses outside of stakes and graded stakes, the so-called "black type" races because they appear in eye-catching bold print in horse auction catalogs.

"As a racing commissioner, I believe in going medication-free. But we can't do it alone. We need to find teammates; we can't go alone," Ludt said.

Like the version that died Monday, Ludt's would begin with top-level 2-year-olds in 2013, then expand to 3-year-olds in 2014 and older horses in 2015. It is unclear whether it might include an "escape clause" to study the ban's effects for a few months and dump it if other states don't follow Kentucky.

Passage of any version of the restriction on furosemide is likely to be contentious, if Monday's hearings are evidence. Proponents of the ban cited concerns about the public perception of racing; opponents said that if Kentucky acts alone, horses and trainers will flee to other states.

"I think there was significant concern that Kentucky's going to be an island," Beck said. "I don't believe that to be the case. I'm hoping there will be some movement in other states."

The more limited ban probably will have to go back through the special race-day medication committee, headed by commission vice chairman Tracy Farmer.

Earlier in the day, Farmer's committee voted 4-to-1 to put to the full racing commission a ban that would have embraced all horses running in Kentucky.

The move came over vehement objections by Dale Romans, who trains Blue Grass Stakes winner Dullahan, now a contender for the Kentucky Derby next month. Romans attempted to voice opposition at the committee meeting and was shut down.

"They have just started driving the final nail in Kentucky racing," Romans said in protest.

Later, he was allowed to address the full commission. Romans said that Kentucky racing is in a precarious position, largely because other states have expanded gambling to augment purses.

"Now you're going to make the most drastic change in racing, and Kentucky racing is on the way out. Horses are exiting Kentucky racing as fast as they can," Romans said. "Why do we have to be the ones to do it? There's no reason at this time to take this action; there's no emergency. ... This is a very serious vote, major impact of economics of racing in Kentucky."

Former WinStar Farm partner Bill Casner, speaking on behalf of Thoroughbred racehorse owners, said that in the past year, he has run his stable without Lasix and seen improvement, not the bloodbath that some people have predicted.

"This year, I've had five wins, two seconds and a third. What we have found is these horses are not bleeding," Casner said. "We are living in a different era. The American public is being increasingly intolerant of what they perceive as abuse of animals. I do not think the sky will fall. It has not fallen in my world; in fact, I think I've gained a competitive advantage."

Although the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association spoke against the ban, representatives of several key racing groups said their membership overwhelmingly supports moving to drug-free racing.

Matt Iuliano of The Jockey Club praised Kentucky's proposal as a controlled implementation on a relatively risk-free population. "We think the approach you're taking is very structured, very measured," he said.

Commissioner Frank Jones, who voted against the ban, wasn't buying it; he predicted at least 20 percent across-the-board declines in racing and wagering if it passed.

"As a practical matter, if Kentucky acts alone, trainers, owners and horses will exit us for other states that allow Lasix; the Kentucky 2-year-old program that has been very successful at Churchill Downs, that has produced Dullahan, Hansen and others, will be totally neutered," Jones said. "You'll have to stand out of the way so you don't get run over."

But Beck said racing must act or lose any chance to staunch the hemorrhaging of its fan base.

"Part of the reason for that is public perception that we are a drug-infested sport. I don't believe that, but its very difficult to move the needle on that, especially when we are the only people who still have race-day medication," Beck said. "We have to grow our game. If the public perception that keeps us from growing our game is related to an issue like this, and I believe it is, then we have to take action. ... I don't think we should lead the way for the hell of it or to pat ourselves on the back, but because it's the right thing to do."