Furosemide ban in 2-year-old stakes sought

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- The American Graded Stakes Committee has approved a measure to require that the diuretic furosemide be banned in 2-year-old stakes in 2012 for the races to remain eligible for the grades it assigns, the committee said on Wednesday, upping the ante in a struggle that is pitting many owners and breeders against trainers on the issue of the race day use of drugs.

In a statement, the chairman of the committee, which is administered by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, said that TOBA would begin to work with the six states where racetracks conducted 2-year-old graded stakes in an effort to rollback the rules that currently allow all horses to be treated with furosemide on race day. Furosemide, which is commonly known as Lasix, is used to treat bleeding in the lungs.

"We view this as a positive step for the elite-level horses that will race in graded stakes, the ones most likely to perpetuate the breed," said the chairman, Dr. J. David Richardson.

The six states are New York, California, Kentucky, Illinois, Louisiana, and New Jersey. The vast majority of the stakes are held in New York, California, and Kentucky, where regulators have already said that they are re-assessing the state's race day medication policy.

Andrew Schweigardt, the secretary of the committee, said on Wednesday that the committee might explore other alternatives other than pushing for a rule change at the state level, considering the amount of time and effort that is typically involved in amending rules and the opposition the measure will face from horsemen. The alternatives could include the establishment of a "house rule," a measure that tracks use many times to enforce a policy as a condition of entry.

"Some states are more amendable to this than other, and so we would probably have to look at a house rule," Schweigardt said.

The step by the committee was immediately attacked by Rick Violette, the executive director of the horsemen's group in New York, where 17 graded stakes for 2-year-olds are scheduled for 2011. Violette said that the horsemen would oppose any effort to rollback the rules, citing scientific studies that have demonstrated that furosemide is effective in mitigating the severity and frequency of bleeding, and that horsemen would go so far as to ask for a restraining order if the policy were to be enforced next year.

"I would be more than happy to walk in front of a judge who doesn't know an ear from a tail and put the science in front of him to show the recent and historical data on Lasix," Violette said. "It is black and white, as opposed to the rhetoric on the other side. Horses bleed. That is a fact. To force an animal to race without it is premeditated, borderline animal abuse."

The approval of the measure follows a decision by the Breeders' Cup to ban the use of furosemide on race day beginning in 2012 for any of the horses entered in the five races of its year-end event that are restricted to 2-year-olds. The Breeders' Cup has also approved a measure to ban the use of furosemide and other race day drugs for all 15 races in its year-end event beginning in 2013.

Furosemide is currently legal to use in every racing jurisdiction in North America. All other foreign racing jurisdictions ban the use of the drug, though many trainers in Europe have acknowledged that they use the medication for training.

The American Graded Stakes Committee has no enforcement power, but the committee has used its control over the assignment of grades to influence racing policy in the past. Several years ago, the committee required that states have rules in place banning the non-therapeutic use of anabolic steroids in order for races to be eligible for grades, but that was at a time when many racing commissions were already beginning to pass rules to regulate the drugs. Horsemen supported those efforts.

The graded stakes committee was formed to provide guidance to buyers of Thoroughbreds by assigning numbered grades to stakes races so that the quality of a horse's competition could be assessed in short-hand on the pages of sales catalog. The committee, which is composed of representatives of TOBA and racing secretaries, meets in November every year to re-assign the grades.

Intrinsically, the grades have no value, so it is possible that racetracks could continue to run their 2-year-old stakes next year without restrictions on furosemide use. However, that would open the door to racetracks in states that have banned the race day use of the drug to petition for graded-stakes status for their own 2-year-old races.

According to TOBA, 49 races restricted to 2-year-olds have been assigned graded status in 2011. The statement released on Wednesday said that committee would assess the policy at the end of 2012 "to determine whether to continue or expand the policy."

Calls to rollback the raceday use of furosemide surfaced this year in March when influential representatives of racing commissions announced that they would support a ban on the race day use of the drug within five years. Since then, a number of industry groups have endorsed the call, citing their concerns over the public perception of racing and the isolation of the North American racing community, but horsemen have resisted.