Lovely Maria wins the 141st Kentucky Oaks

The Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Churchill Downs, Keeneland and other major U.S. racetracks want to ban a popular medication trainers give horses before racing, a watershed move that by 2021 would include top races such as the Kentucky Derby.

The drug furosemide, commonly known as Lasix, is routinely given to horses on the day of a race, including in Kentucky. Its advocates contend it is a humane treatment that keeps horses from bleeding, while critics question whether it may improve performance by inducing weight loss.

The debate has raged for years in racing circles. Last month, the owner of California’s Santa Anita Park announced it would implement a raceday ban on Lasix following a rash of thoroughbred deaths at the track, although it hasn't begun.

No U.S. track or state racing commission currently outlaws the drug on the day of races. But Churchill Downs and other racetrack owners want that to change, announcing Thursday that starting next year they want to bar Lasix from being given to 2-year-old horses at their tracks within 24 hours of a race.

A year later, the ban would extend to all horses in stakes races – including the Triple Crown races for 3-year-olds.

“This is a significant and meaningful step to further harmonize American racing with international standards,” Bill Carstanjen, chief executive officer of Churchill Downs Inc., said in a statement. “We will continue to work with other stakeholders, including our horsemen and regulatory agencies, to fully implement this and other important reforms.”

Track spokesman Darren Rogers acknowledged that giving horses Lasix on race days is a "controversial and divisive subject," but he noted that the U.S. still allows it while most other countries do not. 

"Now is the time for us to get in line with the rest of the world and fall in line with more international raceday standards," he said.

In all, 20 tracks have agreed to the raceday ban, representing about 86 percent of all high-level stakes races in the U.S., according to a news release.

"If society or the game says to take it away then we'll take it away but we are not abusing or trying to hurt these animals," trainer Wayne Rice said. 

The tracks will work with horsemen's associations and racing commissions to enact the ban, they said in a statement. Those commissions largely regulate horse racing on a state-by-state basis. 

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission said in a statement that it's aware of the initiative but has not received a "specific proposal with details of how this might be implemented." If it does, the agency said it will review and consider any plan.

Eric Hamelback, chief executive of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said he applauds the racetracks for wanting to improve safety measures but maintains that the current system serves horses best.

In an interview, he said giving horses Lasix four hours before a race is based on "research and science" and is a proven way to control bleeding in horses. 

"If they follow through with this plan, we want to make sure the health and the welfare of the equine athlete is seen first, and we want to make sure veterinarians are part of those discussions," he said. 

Hamelback said there's no science that shows horses gain any "drastic advantage" when they receive Lasix four hours before a race. 

He also cautioned that the tracks' proposal still would need regulatory approval in Kentucky and other states. If implemented, he said it could have an economic impact on racing, including smaller field sizes. 

Reach reporter Marcus Green at 502-585-0825, mgreen@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2019 WDRB Media. All rights reserved.

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Marcus Green joined WDRB News in 2013 after 12 years as a staff writer at the Louisville Courier-Journal. He reports on transportation, development and local and state government.