The Stronach Group, owner of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, has joined a coalition of major American racetracks in phasing out the use of the horse medication Lasix on race days following a series of fatalities at Santa Anita Park in California.
At least 23 horses have died after breaking down during races or training sessions at the track just outside Los Angeles. Operations were suspended by Stronach, which owns the track, on March 5, following a spate of 21 deaths that started on Dec. 26.
Stronach moved to ban race-day Lasix at the track immediately, but after objections from the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the two sides reached an agreement to start restrictions on 2018 foals, who won’t race until next year. Horses that use Lasix on race days now will continue to do so, but at half the dosage.
Following today’s announcement, restrictions have been placed on using the medication at the venues for 86 percent of graded or listed stakes races–the ones with the most elite runners in the field–in the country, including the three host venues for horse racing’s Triple Crown.
Under the agreement, trainers will not be allowed to administer Lasix to 2-year-olds within 24 hours of a race starting in 2020. The next year, restrictions apply to all horses running in a stakes race at the coalition of tracks. Racing resumed at Santa Anita in late March, and two days later, another horse broke down.
Horses age 3 and older can, however, be given Lasix in lower tier non-stakes competition, such as allowance, claiming or maiden special weight races, said Tiffani Steer, director of special projects for The Stronach Group.
Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of The Stronach Group, said in a statement the new measures are “a good start” for evolving the legacy sport.
“This industry coalition has taken an important step forward toward a uniform policy and we are committed to focusing our attention and resources on how to make further improvements that directly prioritize equine health and safety,” she said. “We applaud our industry partners and we look forward to continued collaboration.”
In addition to Stronach, which also counts Gulfstream Park in Florida among its major thoroughbred holdings, Churchill Downs Incorporated and the New York Racing Association are members of the pact, as are track owners at Del Mar, Keeneland, Lone Star Park and Remington Park, Los Alamitos Racecourse, Oaklawn Park and Tampa Bay Downs.
Lasix, a diuretic, is used by trainers to reduce bleeding from the lungs in horses during strenuous exercise, a common condition. According to the National Institute of Health, there is “low quality evidence” that this condition, known as exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage, causes sudden death in racehorses.
But trainers and owners have argued it would be cruel not to treat this condition, and Lasix is the most effective medicine available.
Critics argue the drug is a performance-enhancer–making horses lighter and faster because of how much they urinate before a race–and possibly a masking agent for other illegal substances. The frequent use of the drug leads to dehydration and more breakdowns, critics say. Per the Louisville Courier-Journal, the use of Lasix on races is banned almost everywhere outside North America.
The crisis at Santa Anita happened as Stronach was dealing with a political struggle here in Maryland to steer funds to Laurel Park and, eventually, move the Preakness Stakes there. Stronach has said it doesn’t make sense for the company to operate two tracks in Maryland, and during the legislative session it backed a proposal in the Maryland General Assembly to authorize the Maryland Economic Development Corporation to issue bonds to turn Laurel Park into a “super track” and create a first-class training center in Bowie.
The bill died after Baltimore’s House delegation voted against it.
Amidst the political tug-of-war, the city sued Stronach for control of Pimlico and the Preakness Stakes, arguing the track owner had purposefully neglected the track in Northwest Baltimore by investing the bulk of its funds into fixing up Laurel.