Written by: Keith McCalmont
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Industry insiders discuss the pros and cons of developing uniform medication standards for horse racing in Canada.

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The Stronach Group, headed by Aurora, ON businessman Frank Stronach, recently added its name to a list of supporters backing legislation that would aim for uniform medication standards and drug testing enforcement standards for horse racing in the U.S.

Congressmen Andy Barr and Paul Tonko are planning to reintroduce the Horseracing Integrity Act with the goal of aligning medication regulations in the 38 U.S. states that permit pari-mutuel wagering under the oversight of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

The Stronach Group owns a number of major racetracks in the U.S. including Gulfstream Park, in Florida; Santa Anita Park, in California; as well as Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, in Maryland.

“I, Frank Stronach, founder and honorary chairman of The Stronach Group, am pleased to support the Horse Racing Integrity Act, sponsored by Congressman Andy Barr and Congressman Paul Tonko,” said Stronach. “Under the legislation, USADA should work together with state regulators and members of the horse racing industry to achieve the highest integrity at a reasonable cost.”

The legislation picks up on the heels of the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015, H.R. 3084, which did not make it out of committee.

WHOA Says No To Drugs

The end goal of eliminating race day medication is something B.C.-based owner and breeder Charles Fipke feels would benefit the sport. Fipke is a member of the Water Hay Oats Alliance (WHOA), an industry group with more than 1000 members.

Fipke spoke out about the race day anti-bleeding medication commonly known as Lasix, one of a number of medications at issue, on the WHOA website.

“In regards to the anti-bleeding medication Lasix, although we are at a disadvantage in racing, our stable policy is that we do not permit our trainers to administer Lasix unless scoping results demonstrate that the horses have bled in the lungs during racing,” said Fipke. “Although administering Lasix before the race usually prevents bleeding, it causes the horses to urinate excessively resulting in about a 100 pound weight loss before the race giving these horses a huge weight advantage. Therefore, in North America nearly all horses run on Lasix whether or they need it or not.”

The Lasix Debate

While severe bleeding in racehorses is uncommon, it is accepted that most thoroughbreds experience some level of bleeding in the lungs which, in addition to being uncomfortable for the equine athlete, is also a hindrance to their overall performance.

Veteran trainer Craig MacPherson, leading trainer at Hastings Racecourse in 2013 and a fixture near the top of the table on the west coast, offers a cautious approach.

“I think public perception is of paramount importance to us, so I can see why they want to make us look as drug free as possible,” said MacPherson. “However, I think some of the therapeutic drugs like Lasix aren’t necessarily bad for the industry if it’s something that helps the horse and allows it to continue racing and be healthy.

“The drugs you really need to be strict with are things like pain medications too close to a race, so you’re not sending over a horse that thinks he’s sound but isn’t,” continued MacPherson. “Other things like oral electrolytes that help the horse and it’s recovery after a race, if that was all taken out I’m not so sure that helps the horses and I don’t think it would have any effect on how the public would perceive what we do here.”

Veteran horseman Mike Keogh, who conditioned Wando to a memorable Canadian Triple Crown run in 2003, feels the goal of eliminating Lasix on race day is unrealistic.

“We’ve bred all these stallions, that were retired early, that were bleeders and now it’s in the blood,” said Keogh. “I can’t see how they can get away without Lasix.

“Lasix doesn’t make them run faster,” continued Keogh. “It’s humane. It stops them from bleeding. Believe me, it’s in their blood now. In Germany, all of the stallions that they breed to cannot have run on Lasix and that’s why they have a strong breed.”

A native of Epsom, England, Keogh points to environmental differences between North America and Europe as a hindrance to racing without Lasix.

“The majority of the major racetracks in North America are situated near an airport and the pollution is unbelievable. I can see why they don’t need it in England, racing at all these beautiful countryside racetracks, but our major racetracks are not,” said Keogh.

“I think it’s inhumane to run a horse that’s known to be a bleeder without it,” said Keogh.

Uniform Rules Would Help Horsemen

While Keogh believes the elimination of race day medications, like Lasix, is not entirely feasible, he does see a great benefit to, at least, aligning the allowable dosages of medication continent wide.

“We’ve been crying out about this for years. Years ago when I was shipping out of town all the time, you had to find out what was allowed in each jurisdiction. It’s a nightmare shipping a horse out of town,” said Keogh.

MacPherson is on the same page as his fellow horseman when it comes to a uniform set of rules.

“I agree with the idea of a level playing field, country wide,” said MacPherson. “That helps you moving from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. At least you know the rules are the same for everybody.

“When you look at some of the other major sports leagues, they all have a central commission that makes the rules. If the Rangers are playing the Ducks, it’s not one rule in New York and another rule in California,” continued MacPherson. “So, I think a central czar would be beneficial for racing and I think we’re closer to that situation here in Canada than they are in the states where the rules are different all over the place.”

Sue Leslie, President of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of Ontario, concurs with both MacPherson and Keogh.

“The HBPA is strongly in support of uniform rules and officiating,” said Leslie. “It’s in the best interests of the industry to have a set standard across North American on all these issues.”

Aligning all of the racing jurisdictions, across North America, is certain to be both costly and complex with much of the industry at odds on what is right for the horse. Elimination of race day medications in their entirety seems to be in the very distant future.

“It’s a complex issue. At this point, it’s more important that as an industry we’re uniform so that we’re all operating on the same playing field with the same understanding,” continued Leslie. “The HBPA did not endorse getting rid of Lasix for several reasons and that would take a nation-wide effort.”

However, if there was a reason to initiate a step function change within the sport, it could be to attract rather than alienate potential new customers that are struggling to understand the sport.

“To change everything overnight would probably cause a little bit of panic (for horsemen)…but, we’re losing our fan base to casinos,” said MacPherson. “There’s a lot we can do to improve the product we put out there and I think it will take people getting together at a national level, and pushing in the same direction instead of pulling away from each other to look after ourselves.”