Churchill Downs and Keeneland race tracks said Thursday they will proceed with race-day bans on the use of Lasix in two-year-old horses. The move comes several months after the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission approved phasing out the use of the drug, which prevents exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage in horses; that regulation is pending legislative approval.
The tracks also announced they’re amending their so-called “house rules” to require additional checks by the horse’s regular veterinarian — five days before a workout and three days before a race. That’s in addition to race-day checks by a state veterinarian.
“We’re always looking to figure out ways we can figure out ways to help protect the safety and the welfare of our participants, both human and equine,” said Dr. William Farmer, Equine Medical Director at Churchill Downs.
Veterinarians administer Lasix to many horses as a preventative measure. The drug prevents bleeding in a horse’s lungs, which in many cases can disqualify the horse from racing. Proponents say it’s cruel to not administer something you believe could help the horse stay healthy — and keep competing.
But the drug also acts as a diuretic: it can make a horse drop 25 pounds of water weight. That in turn makes the horse faster, so owners and trainers have a clear competitive motivation to administer the drug. And critics say giving a horse Lasix can end up masking other health problems.
Many other tracks have already banned the use of race-day Lasix for horses, including tracks owned by the Stronach Group. That company also operates the Santa Anita racetrack in California, where 56 horses died over a 17-month period in 2018 and 2019. The cause of those deaths is still unknown, but they’ve led to increased scrutiny of the country’s horseracing industry.
And while everyone representing the industry agrees that equine health and safety should be paramount, there’s a lot of disagreement about whether a ban on race-day Lasix is the right move.
“[The ban on Lasix] is based on perception and peer pressure from those outside the industry,” said Eric Hamelback, the CEO of the National Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
Hamelback said he’s in favor of some of the other safety measures Churchill Downs and Keeneland are putting into effect, like the increase in vet visits. But he doesn’t see any scientific consensus that giving horses Lasix is unsafe.
“We stand with veterinary leadership and science against that because the [American Veterinary Medical Association] as well as the [American Association of Equine Practitioners], the gold standard, continue to tell us that the administration of Lasix at four hours prior to the extensive exertion of the exercise that they go through in a race is beneficial to the health and welfare of a horse.”
Federal lawmakers — including Kentucky Rep. Andy Barr — are pushing for legislation that would address horseracing medication on a national basis. The federal Horseracing Integrity Act, which has been introduced in the past two sessions of Congress, would establish a private, independent anti-doping authority for the industry.
Terri Burch is the coordinator of the University of Louisville’s Equine Program. She said she believes one of the reasons racetracks like Churchill Downs and Keeneland are acting now is to get ahead of the bill, and perhaps take some of the wind out of its sails.
“A lot of people are very concerned about the legislation and some of the wording in that legislation that’s way overreaching,” Burch said. “So the big entities are getting together and trying to find something to show that they are trying to stand up for the horses.”
But in the meantime, Hamelback said he’s not sure the racetracks’ moves will pass legal muster.
“They would have to be discussed in a court of law,” he said.
In 2015, an opinion from then-Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway struck down Keeneland’s plan to ban Lasix for some two-year-old races.
In the meantime, the ban on Lasix won’t affect this year’s Kentucky Derby; that race is comprised solely of three-year-old horses. Churchill Downs has previously said it plans to extend the ban on race-day Lasix to “graded stakes” in 2021, which would include the Derby.
Correction: This story has been corrected to clarify that Keeneland planned to ban Lasix for some, not all, two-year-old races.