LEXINGTON, Ky. -- A proposal to ban an anti-bleeding drug on race days in Kentucky lost by a nose on Monday in a debate dividing a hobbled thoroughbred industry struggling to preserve the Bluegrass state's reputation as the nation's horse capital.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission ended the tense discussion on the use of furosemide with a 7-7 roll call vote on the proposed regulation that would have prohibited the drug from the Kentucky Derby in 2014, and in the whole state starting in 2015. The race-day ban would have first applied to 2-year-olds racing in 2013.
The proposal would have made Kentucky the first state to ban race-day use of furosemide, marketed under the brand names Lasix or Salix. The drug is used to treat pulmonary hemorrhaging in racehorses. Furosemide is the only medication allowed to be given to horses on race day in the United States. Its use is banned in other countries because it enhances performance.
Supporters said the race-day ban of the drug would improve the sport's public image, which could attract new fans for a sport that has struggled in the completion for gambling dollars.
Commission Chairman Robert Beck Jr. said thoroughbred racing has suffered from a misperception that the sport is "drug infested."
Opponents countered that the proposal would saddle Kentucky with a competitive disadvantage that would drive away trainers and horses. They warned no other state would follow Kentucky's lead in imposing a race-day ban on furosemide. It would take just one subpar performance by a thoroughbred running without race-day Lasix to prompt the trainer to move the horse elsewhere, they said.
Rick Hiles, president of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said Lasix has been widely accepted in the industry and shown to be therapeutically good for horses.
Hiles recalled seeing horses collapsing on the racetrack "in a pool of blood" from internal bleeding in the era before the drug became commonplace. Such a grisly scene would incur public wrath when knowing that it could be avoided, he said.
"I think if this is allowed to happen, the Humane Society is going to come down on us like you won't believe," he said.
Prominent horse owner Bill Casner spoke up for the ban, and said his thoroughbreds have thrived in the past year since he has run them without Lasix. In that time, he had one victory, three seconds and a third in six starts last year, followed by five wins, two seconds and one third for eight horses this year.
He said his horses haven't experienced bleeding problems.
"We've got to give these horses a bit more credit," he said. "These horses have been bred for 400 years. Out of that 400 years, we only have about 25 years that they've run on medication."
He said the public has become increasingly intolerant of anything perceived as abusive to animals.
"I do not think the sky will fall," Casner said. "It's not fallen in my world. In fact, I really feel like I gained a competitive advantage. And I think it's the right thing for the horse."
The proposal would have banned the race day use of furosemide for 2-year-olds beginning next year, then expand it to 3-year-olds by 2014. The Kentucky Derby, run the first Saturday of May, is for 3-year-old horses, and would have been included in the ban.
A blanket prohibition would have been put in place in 2015 for the entire state, according to the proposal. Horses found with the banned drug would have been disqualified and their purse money forfeited. Violating trainers or veterinarians would have faced license suspensions and fines.
The proposal included an out-clause, however, by having the commission review the impact of the race-day ban in 2013.
Beck said the issue isn't dead yet. The commission, which is the governing body for horse racing in Kentucky, will likely consider a narrower proposal that would apply the race-day ban on furosemide to stakes and grades stakes races, which carry bigger purses.
Earlier in the day, the commission's Race Day Medication Committee had voted 4-1 for the proposal.
The debate comes at a time of growing anxiety in Kentucky horse racing circles. Kentucky racetracks have been struggling to keep pace with competitors in other states where purse money is augmented by slot machines and other forms of gambling.
Longtime Kentucky trainer Dale L. Romans, whose horse Dullahan won Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes to put him in the group of likely Derby favorites, warned that imposing the race-day ban on Lasix would drive "the final nail in Kentucky racing."
Romans said the proposal would have been "the most drastic change to American racing ever."
Last year, a bipartisan pair of lawmakers sought a national ban on performance-enhancing drugs in a bill that came three years after death of Eight Belles at the 2008 Kentucky Derby. A drug test proved that the horse was clear of steroids, but the death helped shine a light on safety problems and the lack of a single governing body for the sport.
Rick Dutrow, trainer of the 2008 Derby winner Big Brown, acknowledged he regularly injected the horse with the then-legal steroid stanozolol.
A 2009 study by three universities found that horses treated with furosemide had less hemorrhaging in their airways and lungs during exercise. The study was conducted by Colorado State University in the U.S., the University of Melbourne in Australia, and the University of Pretoria in South Africa.
In 1987, jockey Pat Day pulled 2-1 Derby favorite Demons Begone after a half-mile when the colt got a nosebleed.