Weight for Salix - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the August 4, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell Forty-two prominent Thoroughbred owners and partnerships turned their philosophical opposition to race-day medication into action and made a laudable commitment July 19 not to run their 2-year-olds this year on Salix. If everyone stays true to the pledge, the racing industry should get some valuable insight into possible aftereffects of eliminating the anti-bleeding medication’s administration on the day a horse races.

But don’t expect this grand experiment to soften any of the rhetoric surrounding the Salix race-day debate. It is clear that many state racing commissions and horsemen’s groups have no appetite for banning a medication they see as an important tool in protecting and preserving the respiratory health of racehorses. What is equally clear is that, as an industry, racing needs to deal head-on with studies showing Salix (the drug furosemide) is a performance-enhancing drug.

Two racetrack veterinarian/trainers, Andy Roberts and Greg Fox, may have developed a viable compromise that balances the legitimate medical need with protecting racing’s integrity. Roberts is a member of the Kentucky Equine Research Drug Council and worked on revamping the state’s medication rules in 2005. His proposal, drafted with Fox, however, is not being proposed in any official way. It is merely a concept they feel is worth considering.

Roberts and Fox’s proposal is based on three accepted facts:

• Furosemide is a diuretic that results in a loss of body weight through urination,
• Weight is an internationally recognized handicapping tool used to even the relative talent within a race, and,
• Trainers always choose race conditions that minimize the weight carried by an individual horse.

Download their proposal here.

What they propose is a system that assigns additional weight of three to five pounds to horses racing on Salix in order to eliminate any “advantage” the horse may have due to the loss of body weight.

“Each trainer in a race would then be forced to determine accurately the absolute need of their horse to have furosemide,” the two vets wrote in their proposal, a complete version of which is available on the “What’s Going on Here” blog on BloodHorse.com. “In other words, no trainer would choose to add the additional weight of three to five pounds to his horse unless it was absolutely necessary.”

This year the Breeders’ Cup World Championships for the first time is banning race-day Salix in its five 2-year-old races. Roberts and Fox said this situation creates a lot of uncertainty, particularly among the betting public. No one will know which runners have been competing with furosemide to manage existing exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging or which have been racing on the drug just because it was allowed, they said. Making allowances with weight would provide “a much clearer picture of the health and talent of the field,” Roberts and Fox concluded. “Using this plan, the races would remain a superior wagering proposition instead of a guessing game as to which horses would suffer from the loss of furosemide.”

Be sure to visit the blog and let us know if you think Roberts and Fox have presented a viable alternative. Because the debate over Salix is so extremely polarized, however, it is important to identify any compromise that can avoid paralysis by gridlock and keep the issue moving forward.

The Medication Rules Maze

Minnesota is a good example of just how twisting the road is toward achieving uniform medication rules.

The Minnesota Racing Commission routinely adopts the model rules proposed by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which in October 2010 reduced the allowable level of phenylbutazone (or Bute) on race day to 2 micrograms/ml from 5 mcg/ml.

The MRC then made extensive revisions to its medication thresholds during the fourth quarter of 2010 and first quarter of 2011. Because of additional rule-making procedures required by an administrative judge, the revised rules were finally rewritten, resubmitted, and approved in May 2012.

Within these rules, the allowable level of Bute is 5 mcg/ml. Keeping the level at 5 mcg/ml was not what the commission wanted but instead what the commission was required to do because the regulatory threshold for Bute is set by statute. The Minnesota Legislature did pass a new law that lowered the Bute threshold to 2 mcg/ml, and the law became effective May 5, but the rule change and the change in state law passed each other like subway trains. The commission had to wait for the change to become law before it could begin another rule change process—which the MRC did six weeks after the law went into effect.

The rule change lowering the Bute threshold to 2 mcg/ml in Minnesota is expected to be in effect by 2013.

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