Race-day Drug Use in USA Remains Controversial

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The use of drugs in North American horseracing was once again under the spotlight at the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) conference held in Paris, France, recently. Keynote speaker, and chairman of the U.S. Jockey Club, Ogden “Dinny” Phipps, reiterated the theme addressed at the 2014 Jockey Club Round Table Conference regarding integrity and uniformity in racehorse drug testing and medication. Despite calls for a centralized regulatory body for horseracing in the United States, there are still 38 individual racing commissions, one for each state with horseracing under its jurisdiction.

The majority of these North American states permit the use of Furosemide, marketed as Lasix or Salix, while all major racing jurisdictions outside of North America have banned the diuretic medication and it is regarded as a banned substance by the International Olympic Committee. Interestingly Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, recently announced that for the track’s 2015 spring meet it will add a ten percent bonus to the winner’s share of the purse if the victor runs the race without the use of Lasix. President of Oaklawn Racing & Gambling, Charles Cella, has been quoted as saying that the bonus payments will not come from the purse fund, but will be provided by the track. Cella expressed his hope that the experimental program will encourage trainers and owners to stop using Lasix in competitive racing.

Furosemide is a diuretic formulated to treat congestive heart failure and edema, but is given to race horses to prevent them bleeding through the nose during races. The use of the drug for the prevention of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH) was discovered in the early 1970s. At that time, the racing rule of most states banned a horse from racing if it experienced bleeding from the nostrils three times. This was purely for the protection of the horse’s wellbeing. However, following clinical trials, some states approved the use of Lasix on race day and by September 1995, after resisting the pressure to conform to the new trend; New York State became the last state in the US to approve its use. The potential side-effects are many, and the medication may mask health problems the horse may be experiencing.

Parties with the welfare of equine athletes at heart have been pushing to have the drug banned. Research has reportedly highlighted the fact that the medication policies in North America are alienating horseracing fans, sponsors and animal rights activists, as well as the media and congressional leaders. After mentioning challenges the horse industry around the world faces, including ensuring integrity, protecting the Thoroughbred breed, safeguarding the welfare of horses and competing with other forms of gambling, Phipps reassured all present at the conference that The Jockey Club will continue to advocate for medication reform in North America.

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