Lasix use on race days has caused a controversy in the thoroughbred racing world. Here’s a quick look at the controversial practice. Nikki Boliaux, Louisville Courier Journal
Six years after declaring its opposition to horse racing on a mobile billboard circling Churchill Downs during Derby Week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has adopted a subtler strategy.
Reassured by initiatives the racetrack announced last week and by management’s receptiveness to further discussions, PETA is planning no protests for Kentucky Derby 145. Speaking at the annual shareholders meeting of Churchill Downs Inc. on Tuesday morning in Chicago, PETA vice president Kathy Guillermo commended CDI’s announced intention to phase-out race-day Lasix at the company’s racetracks and challenged management to lead the way toward additional reforms.
“I certainly prefer to work with a company than not,” Guillermo said after the meeting. “I’d say I’m encouraged, without the use of a whip.”
While numerous horsemen resent that an organization intent on the abolition of horse racing is able to influence policy, others with a vested interest in the sport warn of the threat posed if PETA can mobilize its members in support of a referendum to ban racing in California. Recognizing the potential cost and uncertainty of a ballot measure, both sides can see some advantages in compromise.
With politicians and prosecutors echoing the concerns of animal rights activists following a rash of equine fatalities at Santa Anita, a coalition comprised of most of America’s major racetracks announced their intention to restrict the use of Lasix last Thursday.
Later that day, Churchill Downs detailed additional measures aimed at enhancing the health and welfare of thoroughbreds, including an $8 million equine medical center, the adoption of international standards on the use of riding crops, expanded video surveillance of the track’s backside operation and advocacy of additional medication reforms.
“As the host of the Kentucky Derby and a key leader in the racing industry, Churchill Downs has a heightened responsibility to implement the world’s best practices for caring for racehorses at our facilities,” CDI Chief Executive Officer Bill Carstanjen said in a prepared statement. “We also have a responsibility to educate and advocate so that others do so as well.”
Only last month, prominent breeder Arthur Hancock called Churchill Downs the main obstacle to passage of the Horse Racing Integrity Act, a bill that would ban the use of Lasix on race day and create a national standard for drug testing. But in “unequivocally” endorsing a race-day Lasix ban for 2-year-olds beginning next year and in stakes races starting in 2021, Churchill Downs has finally taken a firm stand on a subject it has generally avoided.
Churchill Downs and Keeneland join other horse racing tracks with Lasix ban Dominique Yates, Louisville Courier Journal
“This is a good first step,” Guillermo told CDI shareholders Tuesday, “but more must be done. You are now dealing with a public that has become intolerant of broken bones, whipping, drugging, and death.
“… My question now is this: Will CDI be a leader in reforming racing or allow horses to continue to die?”
Kentucky Horse Racing Commission veterinary reports show 43 thoroughbreds have died of race-related injuries at Churchill Downs since 2016, a 2.42 per 1,000-start fatality rate that is 50% higher than the national average. Citing statistics from The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, Guillermo recommended that CDI convert from dirt to synthetic surfaces at all its racetracks, as it has done at Arlington Park in suburban Chicago and Presque Isle, near Erie, Pennsylvania.
Over the past decade, equine fatalities on synthetic tracks have occurred at a rate of 1.20 per 1,000 starts compared with 1.97 for dirt surfaces.
“When properly maintained and tested, both synthetic and dirt tracks are safe,” Churchill Downs spokesman Darren Rogers said. “Our goal is always doing what’s best for both our human and equine athletes.
“Like our industry partners, we’re continually researching and monitoring available data to determine which surfaces make the most sense at which tracks. But it is very difficult to fairly and accurately compare individual dirt and synthetic tracks given the many different factors that influence the safety of racing surfaces.”
Guillermo said she doesn’t understand Churchill Downs’ resistance to synthetics, “because the data is pretty clear-cut,” but she has shown a willingness to defer that debate to another day if she is able to advance other parts of her agenda.
“I believe (Churchill Downs) are sincere in avoiding what happened in California,” she said. “The proof will be in what happens now. The proof is in the action. We’ll give them a chance to make the improvements.”
Guillermo said she expects other organizations and individuals to stage Derby protests next week, but PETA’s current plan is to exercise patience.
“I’m always willing to be confrontational,” she said, “but I prefer to work together for change.”
Under pressure following a rash of horse racing fatalities, the industry announces plan to limit race-day Lasix diuretic medication. Nikki Boliaux, Louisville Courier Journal