A stance by 25 prominent American trainers Aug. 1 urging the elimination of race-day Salix over the next two years has not done much to clarify the debate over the medication’s use (see page 15), but it has given new momentum to putting America on par with the rest of the racing world.
The intention of the phase-out, some of the supporting trainers said this week, is twofold: 1) get a conversation started on how the U.S. can square its racing policy with other major racing jurisdictions around the world, and 2) address an issue that continues to tarnish the reputation of horse racing as a sport.
“We’ve been in a negative cycle for a while, with a lot of the major indicators being down,” said leading trainer Todd Pletcher, who a couple of years ago described himself as “pro Lasix” and disagreed with a Breeders’ Cup decision to ban Salix use in the World Championships’ races for juveniles. “We need something to change it up, and this is one way I think may make a difference. The rest of the world has been managing without it.”
Pletcher is not alone in having done a lot of soul-searching on the race-day medication issue. Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott said he had been “in the middle” on the issue but now, having weighed the pros and cons, believes American trainers can be successful and racing’s image will be significantly improved without it.
“I think Lasix is overrated as is the importance that some people attribute to it,” Mott said. “It helps some horses. Are there horses that bleed through it? All the time. There will be some adjustment, but everyone will get along just fine.”
New York trainer Rick Violette Jr., president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, doesn’t agree and is among several trainers who have taken a steadfast position that Salix is essential to protect the health of the horses because research shows the medication is effective in reducing exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage.
“Lasix is the only scientifically proven, truly effective treatment we have to protect them,” Violette said in a statement last week. “A Lasix ban does not benefit the horse, the owner, or the horseplayer.”
Many of the most vocal participants in the Salix debate like to paint the issue as black or white, but it is one that is assuredly surrounded in a cloud of gray. Even some of the trainers who favor phasing out its use on race day still have questions and concerns. Phasing out the use of Salix in juveniles has not raised as many questions as eliminating its use in older horses, which race more frequently. Many trainers will cite specific cases of horses they believe simply would not be able to race if Salix were not available.
Trainer Wesley Ward, who has won graded stakes in the U.S. with horses on Salix and won group races at Ascot in England without it, said a homebred he raced named Easy Ashley absolutely needed Salix.
“Whenever I gave her 5 ccs (of Salix), she was clean and went on to earn almost $250,000,” Ward said. “Without it, she probably wouldn’t have earned $2,000.” Just giving the filly time off from training would not have helped. She probably would not have been able to race at all, he said.
Then there is Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains for Darley and Shadwell, and has been racing their horses for several years without Salix. He said in the first two years he took the horses off the medication on race day, he only saw two horses out of 50 bleed significantly.
“This is a big step, and it is a tricky situation,” McLaughlin said. “But it is definitely doable and definitely manageable if we have enough support to do it.”
Everyone has a story to support his or her position, but one of the most compelling arguments to pursue the phase-out is that racing without Salix on race day is not breaking new ground. It used to be done here and is the standard practice elsewhere.
“Even in Europe they use Lasix in the morning,” said trainer Graham Motion. “The issue is about race-day medication. I don’t quite get the panic.”
Because owners frequently defer to their trainers on issues such as medication use, the position taken by these leading trainers is significant in promoting a more thoughtful and conservative approach toward medication use. It is a stance that should be applauded and one that moves the industry in the right direction.