Maybe It’s Time - By Evan Hammonds

This time around it feels different, a lot different. The groundswell is wider; the conviction is deeper.

After years of talking and well-intentioned starts that have been met by abrupt reversals, major movers and shakers in the industry—the major track operators in the U.S.—are drawing a line in the sand when it comes to reshaping race-day medication policy.

In putting their feet down, they might just be able to move the sport forward.

On everyone’s lips this week, is the news that 20 leading tracks announced plans to phase out the use of race-day medication beginning with 2-year-old races in 2020 and all listed and graded stakes beginning in 2021.

That means shoppers at the summer and fall yearling sales will be purchasing prospects that won’t race on race-day-administered furosemide, or Lasix, at 2. It also means the 2021 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) will be the first classic race run without Lasix being administered the day of the event since Thunder Gulch won the 1995 Belmont Stakes (G1).

Talk about a long time coming...but we’ve been down this road before.

In 2011 the American Graded Stakes Committee tried to do away with race-day furosemide in all graded stakes for 2-year-olds. The ban was implemented in the 2012 and 2013 Breeders’ Cup, but that “disappeared as soon as things started to get a little rough, and everyone backed away,” said Dr. J. David Richardson, who was chairman of the AGSC at the time.

The same issues figure to arise this time. However, it’s different with the backing of the “house.” Others are on board as well.

Frank Angst’s online wrap on this story includes commentary from many fronts, and offers an interesting note from an oft-ignored group: horseplayers. Jeff Platt, president of the Horseplayers Association of North America, said his group had not yet formulated an opinion, but in polls, past membership has opposed race-day medication by about a 70-30 margin. We think that’s a pretty strong recommendation for a group comprising the sport’s major gamblers.

While the announcement comes a few weeks after The Stronach Group planned to do away with race-day medication at Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields, let’s not get bogged down in who said what first. The 20 tracks, headed by Churchill Downs, the New York Racing Association, The Stronach Group, Del Mar, Keeneland, Lone Star Park, Remington Park, Los Alamitos Racecourse, Oaklawn Park, and Tampa Bay Downs, are all now in this together. The band must remain strong, resilient, and steadfast to the coming onslaught of legal questions and lawsuits that surely are on the horizon.

Detractors remain on the Lasix/race day issue, and that’s to be expected. Alan Foreman, chairman and CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said that while the tracks involved did reach out to the New York THA, none of his other horsemen’s groups had been included in shaping policy. Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said his organization was left out, but how long has this issue been on the front burner? News of the plan also leaked several days before it was released, so it didn’t come from left field.

As for the issue coming to a head due to the bad news this winter from Santa Anita, Foreman is quoted as saying, “Banning furosemide will have no effect on the breakdown rate.”

We see his point. However, this issue goes beyond the breakdown rate and the 23 deaths at Santa Anita. It’s more than that. It’s about doing the right thing. It’s about coming online with the global Thoroughbred racing community. And it’s about cleaning up the sport for the sport’s sake.

Public perception has changed. Administering race-day medications to an animal is not acceptable. The future of the sport—bringing in new fans, new players, new owners—hinges on this issue at this time. Maybe it’s time.

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