USA: New York stands ready to herald new era of Lasix-free juvenile racing

Horse Racing Aqueduct
Aqueduct: due to host Lasix-free two-year-old races from April. Photo: NYRA/Coglianese Photos

By Karen M. Johnson/NYRA

USA: Racing in New York is currently suspended until further notice owing to coronavirus. When it resumes, however, the east coast’s premier circuit is set to usher in a new era in medication reform in North American racing when the New York Racing Association (NYRA) will prohibit the use of Furosemide – better known by its former trade name Lasix – within 48 hours of racing for all two-year-olds.

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Last April, NYRA joined a coalition of leading racing organisations committed to phasing out the use of Lasix. Juvenile racing in New York is due to start at Aqueduct in April, when NYRA will prohibit the anti-bleeding medication, before moving on to Belmont Park on April 24 and Saratoga in the summer.

Beginning in 2021, the same prohibition will extend to all horses participating in stakes races at NYRA tracks.

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Coalition racetracks that have signed on to this initiative include all tracks owned or operated by Churchill Downs Incorporated and the Stronach Group as well as Del Mar, Keeneland, Lone Star Park and Remington Park, Los Alamitos (thoroughbred), Oaklawn Park and Tampa Bay Downs. The coalition tracks represent 86% of the stakes races assigned Graded or Listed status in the US in 2018.

Following the launch of this programme in two-year-old maiden special weight races in April at Aqueduct, the first juvenile stakes race contested under these new conditions are slated to come at Belmont with the $150,000 Astoria for filly sprinters on June 4 at the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival.

‘I think this is the right thing to do’

Hall of Fame nominee Christophe Clement, based in New York since 1991, is high on the list of trainers to welcome the move. On the NYRA circuit in 2019, he won 13 races with two-year-olds, all but one of whom raced without Lasix.

Horse Racing Christophe Clement trainer
Christophe Clement: welcomes the phasing out of Lasix. Photo: NYRA/Coglianese Photos

“I think this is the right thing to do in two-year-old races and next year in black-type races,” says the highly respected Clement, who, according to the Paulick Report, Clement trained more no-Lasix winners than anybody else in the US last year with 19.

“My percentage of winners with two-year-olds has been as good as ever,” added Clement. “I think you have an edge of running without Lasix because I think the horses will take their races better, especially when you’re running short and early in the year, because they will lose less weight and it’s easier on them, physically and mentally.

“Instead of losing 20lb to 25lb to 30lb with a race while using Lasix, the horses will lose 5lb to 10lb without Lasix,” he adds. “I am convinced that horses will bounce out of their races in a much faster and quicker way without Lasix. This is something I know because I do weigh my horses the day before their races and the day after their races.”

Clement, who is closing in on 2,000 career wins, is equally pleased that stakes races will be run Lasix-free beginning next year. He said the new practice will result in positive ramifications for both the level of competition in stakes and the breed as a whole.

‘It makes sense to be like the rest of the world’

He says: “People are using black-type races in order to improve the breed and to make important long-term decisions, and I think it makes plenty of sense to be like the rest of the world without Lasix in black-type races.

“When you open a [sales] catalogue, no one knows if that horse has raced on Lasix or not, if it’s not printed there. I think it’s good to join the rest of the world in knowing the black-type races are medication-free. The black-type will be back to its full meaning, about the best horses competing with no medication.”

Seven-time Eclipse Award-winning champion trainer Todd Pletcher generally races his two-year-olds on Lasix, and uses it as needed when he breezes horses. However, he says the gradual Lasix phase-out is a practical way to achieve the end of raceday medication.

“I do believe that we’ve seen horses of all ages bleed, so it’s not an age issue, it’s an industry-wide issue,” Pletcher says. “But at the same time, there is movement towards [doing away] with raceday medication and this is the first step towards what I think we will eventually see as no raceday medication of any kind, anywhere. 

“You can draw some positives that this is easing its way into what is going to be in the future, as opposed to going cold turkey,” Pletcher adds. “It’s going to give people some time to sort through it. We will just take it on a horse-by-horse basis and deal with it accordingly.”

Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Graham Motion suggests the removal of race day Lasix is an important initiative for multiple reasons, not the least of which is public perception.

“I’ve had a few clients over the last few years that have asked me not to run the two-year-olds on Lasix, and I do think that’s a good thing,” Motion says.

‘Any policy towards less medication is a positive thing’

“I think if our two-year-olds need to run on Lasix at that stage, I don’t think you should be running them, quite frankly. I am not anti-Lasix per se – but I do think this is a good place to start. Any continuity and any policy towards having less medication in our sport is a positive thing.

“It’s something we tried before in two-year-old races [at the Breeders’ Cup in 2012-13] and now we’re revisiting it again. When they tried this at the Breeders’ Cup, everybody complained, and we stopped. 

“I think at the end of the day, the most important thing is that we stick with it because there is a public perception with horse racing that if we’re running on medication, it’s not a good thing. It’s hard to justify that is not right. It’s hard to stand up for our sport if we’re running on medication.”

Longtime New York horseman David Donk, who assisted the legendary Hall of Famer Woody Stephens for several years before launching his own stable at NYRA, is familiar with not using Lasix for racing, because it wasn’t allowed when he began training.

“You didn’t have it, so you didn’t use it,” says Donk. “It didn’t mean you didn’t still breeze a horse on Lasix, but you didn’t race on Lasix.

“Obviously, we need to make some changes in our industry for public perception as well as for the health and welfare of the horses. It’s not going to be that difficult not to race with Lasix.”

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