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Industry-led welfare and safety reforms are gaining momentum as several of the largest race tracks in the United States announce they will phase out the use of furosemide, commercially sold as Lasix, beginning in 2020. By 2021, race-day furosemide will be banned for all major races, including the Triple Crown. These tracks stage about 86% of the U.S. stakes races, including the Triple Crown Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.

The staged-proposal will see furosemide ban for all 2-year-old horses within 24 hours of a race beginning Jan 1, 2020, and all other horses beginning in 2021. Furosemide is a diuretic that is given to horses on race-day to reduce exercise induced pulmonary bleeding (EIPH). The drug which is proven to reduce pulmonary bleeding is banned in all other racing jurisdictions for it’s performance-enhancing, electrolyte-altering and alkanizing effects. Lasix alters metabolism, and can alter behaviour due to the muscle pain it is known to cause.

All tracks owned or operated by Churchill Downs Inc., the New York Racing Association Inc. and the Stronach Group, as well as Del Mar, Keeneland, Lone Star Park, Remington Park, Los Alamitos Racecourse, Oaklawn Park and Tampa Bay Downs will be affected by this ban. Other groups, including the Breeders’ Cup Limited, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders’ Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association also support this new policy.

This industry-led initiative was initiated by California’s regulatory body for horse racing, the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) following a push by The Stronach Group who own the Santa Anita racetrack, after a dramatic spike in catastrophic injuries forced the closure of the track. While furosemide has not been directly linked with any deaths, the leniency of medication rules in North American racing contributes to the systemic integrity and welfare problems that have placed racing’s social licence to operate at risk.

“Horse racing in the U.S. faces significant challenges to its long-term health. The leadership of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) reviews with interest the announcement by a cohort of Thoroughbred racing organizations that they will ban the use of furosemide in 2-year-old racing in 2020 and graded stakes races in 2021. The landscape is changing,” said AAEP President Jeff T. Berk, DVM, of Equine Medical Associations of Lexington, Kentucky in a statement published by the Modern Equine Vet.

“As doctors of veterinary medicine, science and evidence-based discovery is our foundation, and as such, the AAEP’s long-standing racehorse medication policy has supported the administration of furosemide on race day to mitigate the adverse effects of exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage (EIPH),” he said.

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Belinda Stronach, chairperson and president of The Stronach Group said the development of this policy was not easy. “We are on track to be aligned with medication standards consistent with, or more restrictive than, those of the International Federation of Horse Racing Authority, which are the world’s benchmark for horse safety and welfare.

“While we have paved the way in working with the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the CHRB to make changes here in the state, national collaboration is necessary in order to truly evolve the sport,” she said. “The desire to achieve uniform policies is the beginning of a movement that will redefine the expectations and views on safety within our sport.”

The announcement was welcomed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “”It took 23 dead horses on one track, but we were sure that the racing industry could change if it wanted to and phasing out Lasix for stakes races and 2-year-olds is an excellent first step in what must be an ongoing overhaul of racing rules nationwide,” Kathy Guillermo, PETA’s senior vice president, said in a statement. The group is pushing for further medication reforms, transparency of injury and medication records, ending the use of whips and switching from dirt to high-quality synthetic tracks.

The AAEP said it would fund research to find an alternative for current EIPH management strategies, according to Dr Berk, which could eliminate the need for furosemide. “The proposed phase-out of the medication’s use beginning at many Thoroughbred racetracks in 2020 emphasizes the urgent need for continued research into new methods for mitigating EIPH.

“Regarding the daily care of horses adversely affected by EIPH, the AAEP urges a strong partnership between owners, trainers and veterinarians to optimally manage the syndrome and make decisions in the best interest of the health and welfare of the horse,” he said.

As well as a ban on race-day medication, whip use is undergoing a radical reform under the leadership of the CHRB. The new rule that will see a complete ban on striking a horse with a whip for anything other than a safety reason, was unanimously voted on at their last meeting, and is pending a 45-day compulsory public consultation period which will end May 12th.

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