A group of New Mexico horse breeders and veterinarians plan to debate an issue May 11 that might have had the dolled-up ladies of the Kentucky Derby reaching for their smelling salts: a racehorse-doping controversy.
The New Mexico Racing Commission’s Medication Committee will weigh in on anti-doping legislation sponsored by US Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, possibly making a recommendation that could lead to action on the part of the NMRC itself, which meets May 12.
Udall and US Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., sponsored companion bills that would amend existing federal law to prohibit use of any performance-enhancing drugs in racehorses. The proposed legislation broadly defines performance-enhancing drugs in part as “any substance capable of affecting the performance of a horse at any time.”
Anabolic steroids and other substances normally thought of as “performance-enhancing” are already banned by the horse-racing industry; winning horses are screened for dozens of substances after they race. But the proposed legislation would ban several types of medication that are currently used widely in the sport, including a controversial diuretic called Lasix.
Lasix is administered to many horses on race day to minimize bleeding from the lungs caused by the strenuous exercise. When horses cover a 1-mile distance in about two minutes, as they do on Derby day, their intestines can bang against their diaphragms, causing their lungs to bleed. This interferes with the horses’ respiratory efficiency and often causes them to bleed from the nostrils.
According to data cited by The Jockey Club, approximately 95 percent of racehorses were being treated with Lasix as of 2010, compared with less than 50 percent in 1991. Lasix and other race-day medications are banned in European racing.
“It’s just like anything else; you can have one study that will show you one thing and another study that will show you something else,” Medication Committee member Ray Willis says of the Lasix controversy. “There’s still no concrete evidence one way or the other, so we just have to try to take all those studies into consideration.”
Veterinarian Dr. Jerry Cosper, who also is on the Medication Committee, says it’s possible that eliminating Lasix could ultimately produce healthier racehorses. “We’ll have to start developing horses that don’t need the medication at some point if we’re not allowed to use it,” Cosper says, “which is maybe a good thing.”
Chris Scherf, executive vice president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, says that Lasix is often decried in international racing forums for allegedly weakening the Thoroughbred breed. Slowing race times also contribute to growing questions about current racing practices: 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom’s time was approximately three seconds slower than Secretariat’s 1973 showing, despite ideal conditions at the track last Saturday.
However, equine geneticist Dr. Ernest Bailey of the Gluck Equine Research Center in Kentucky tells SFR that there isn’t empirical evidence establishing whether or not widespread use of Lasix could be weakening Thoroughbred and quarter horse breed lines.
Use of medications that could mask a horse’s medical condition not only presents a possible danger to the horses, but also to the jockeys, Scherf notes. “If an unsound horse is racing, the jockey’s already-perilous job is becoming more perilous,” he says. “If a horse goes down, the jockey’s going with them.”
But though the TRA supports moving away from reliance on race-day medications, it has not come out in support of the proposed legislation. The changes should come from within the industry rather than being imposed by the federal government, Scherf and others say.
“You would be having the government running your industry [rather than] the industry managing the situation itself, and we think the industry should manage itself…this would turn over much of what the commission does to the Federal Trade Commission,” Scherf says. “That’s a major issue because it’s an area in which they’ve never dealt before. The wisdom of that is worth debate.”
New Mexico Racing Commission Agency Director India Hatch says although the NMRC is anxious to “crack down on any kind of abuse” of medications, it too is leery of coming under federal regulation.
“Federal oversight always lends another wrinkle to things,” Hatch says. “It just sometimes makes a lot more red tape.”