Maryland Jockey Club, horsemen agree to pilot program for Lasix restrictions

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Pimlico Race Course on Preakness day. Photo by World Red Eye.

The Stronach Group, owner of the Maryland Jockey Club, and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association have reached an agreement on a pilot program to restrict the use of the medication Lasix on horses.

Under the deal, 2-year-olds cannot receive Lasix 48 hours before a race in 2020. From 2021 to 2023, all races with 2-year-olds and all graded stakes races–which would include the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown–will be run Lasix-free.

Lasix, a diuretic, is often used by horse trainers to treat a condition known as exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage, which causes horses to bleed in their lungs after strenuous activity.

But critics argue trainers rely on the drug as a performance-enhancer, and that it can also lead to dehydration and breakdowns.

Last month, Stronach Group wrote a letter to the Maryland Racing Commission announcing its intentions to curb the use of Lasix. The company had already written a ban on the drug 24 hours before post time into the conditions of some races at another one of its properties, Gulfstream Park.

All the entrants must comply with the conditions for the race.

Tracks in California, New York, Kentucky and Florida have already implemented similar reforms, Craig R. Fravel, Stronach’s CEO of racing operations, wrote in the letter to the commission.

“The clear weight of evidence shows that what began decades ago as a limited therapeutic to assist the few horses that were habitual bleeders has become a crutch for those looking for a competitive edge,” Fravel wrote. “The time is now to address this matter and to do so without delay.”

Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of The Stronach Group and 1/ST–a Stronach initiative to modernize the horse racing industry–later expounded on the need to ban the drug in an op-ed published in The Baltimore Sun.

She wrote horses can lose between 10 and 20 pounds within hours of being given the drug.

“As everyone in the horse industry knows, the weight a horse carries directly affects its speed,” she wrote. “It is as simple as that—Lasix is being used as a performance-enhancing drug—and it must stop. Healthy horses do not need Lasix to race.”

In the midst of a spate of fatal equine breakdowns at Santa Anita Park in 2019, The Stronach Group joined a coalition of major American racetracks pledging to phase out the use of the medication.

Some local owners and trainers were against the ban. The Maryland Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association and Maryland Horse Breeders Association put a joint statement in April 2019 saying a ban could result in “irreparable harm to many of our horses.”

“Deprivation of a safe and effective medication for our horses is totally contrary to our commitment to the health, safety and welfare of the horse, and veterinary scientific experts and researchers agree,” the groups said.

Since Stronach’s letter to the racing commission last month, the groups held “weeks of good-faith discussions,” according to a joint press release.

Per The Sun, the agreement was presented to the Maryland Racing Commission today, and the body moved to ask a legislative panel to pass an emergency rule change governing Lasix.

As part of the agreement, the Maryland Jockey Club is committing to three live racing days per week during all race meets, starting July 23. Since returning after a government-mandated shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Maryland Jockey Club has only been running races on Fridays and Saturdays at Laurel Park.

There will now be racing on Thursdays.

Both parties have also agreed to conduct a study on Lasix-free racing in Maryland.

Additionally, funding to Beyond the Wire, an aftercare program for retired racehorses, will be increased. Funding for the program relies heavily on an $11 per-start contribution from owners.

The initiative lost a significant amount of revenue during the two-and-a-half month shutdown at Laurel Park.

Brandon Weigel

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