Kentucky Derby horses running without Lasix under new rule

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Kentucky Derby is steeped in tradition: a blanket of red roses to the winner, fancy hats worn by mint julep-sipping spectators and its first Saturday in May date on the calendar.

There’s a major change coming to the 147th Derby.

It will be run for the first time this weekend without horses using the anti-bleeding drug Lasix as part of the sport’s plodding attempt to move toward the elimination of race-day medication.

The drug is already widely banned on race days in the rest of the world.

Lasix has long been the third-rail in North American racing, with people on both sides of the issue disagreeing about its use.

Formally known as furosemide, it’s given as a $20 injection about four hours before a race to prevent or reduce the severity of exercise-induced bleeding in the lungs. It also works as a diuretic that causes horses to urinate and lose 20 to 30 pounds of fluid, thus increasing their ability to run faster. Humans use Lasix to control blood pressure.

“I’ve never had a fan come up to me and say, `Geez, Lasix is bad,”‘ said California-based trainer John Sadler, who saddles Rock Your World in the Derby. “People want to go to the races and have fun and watch good horses run.”

Kiaran McLaughlin trained for 10 years in Dubai and achieved major success for Godolphin Racing without race-day medication. However, he was initially concerned about not having it.

“Once you get there and realize they are fine without medication and they can run without being treated, you learn quick it’s somewhat overrated with medications,” he said.

Tracks from New York to California and Maryland to Florida have recently eliminated Lasix on race days after decades of use. This year, the ban extends for the first time to lucrative and prestigious stakes races, including the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

The goal is a complete elimination of Lasix by July 1, 2022, when the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act is set to take effect. It will enact national rules on medication and doping that would replace the patchwork that exists in 38 racing jurisdictions around the country.

Beginning last year, Kentucky banned the use of race-day Lasix for 2-year-olds. Those horses are now 3 and eligible for the Triple Crown series.

The last horse to win the Derby without Lasix was Grindstone in 1996.

Churchill Downs declined to award qualifying points in this year’s Kentucky Derby prep races to any horse running on race-day Lasix. The Breeders’ Cup is following suit, with a Lasix ban for its qualifying races and no points awarded to horses using it.

Use of Lasix is apparent to the wagering public in racing programs, where the capital letter L is noted next to a horse’s name.

Count two-time Derby winner Doug O’Neill as another trainer initially apprehensive about the ban.

“The longer we’ve done it, the more I’ve been able to adjust,” he said. “The horses have kept their form without it. They do seem to come out of the races with more energy, and they get back to their normal exercise energy quicker so they recover quicker without Lasix.”

McLaughlin, who left training last year to become a jockey agent, said there were few horses that bled in the desert, noting races are run at a slower pace than in the U.S. and racing is limited to five months of the year.

Two-time Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher said the ban didn’t change the way he trains, however, he acknowledged, “Bleeding can be an issue for horses, with or without Lasix.”

The Lasix ban seems to have affected older horses used to running on the drug more than their younger counterparts.

“I’ve had some older horses and I have to say no more stakes for them,” Sadler said. “They’re got to run in easier races. They weren’t capable of running without Lasix.”

O’Neill has changed his horses’ diets in the days leading up to timed workouts and races because of the ban.

“We’re more thoughtful of not having much in their stomach for exercise,” he said. “Just try to have them a little bit more light going into their works and races. It’s definitely been something that we’ve been more conscientious of with no Lasix.”

Trainers with smaller stables than the Pletchers and Bob Bafferts of the sport, along with owners, can find themselves losing money when horses who bleed can’t run on Lasix.

“How are you going to tell an owner this horse is going to only run four times this year instead of eight or nine because I need more time in between to heal them up because he bleeds and we can’t use Lasix?” trainer Joe Orceno said. “Owners are not going to be as excited about buying horses and racing if they can’t run them more than four times a year.”

One thing most trainers agree on is the need for a level playing field for all horses.

“This pendulum has swung a little bit to one side more than the other,” Sadler said, “but hopefully we’ll get the right blend.”

Watch the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 1 from 12 to 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Full coverage is also available on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

Irad Ortiz sets single-season record with 77th stakes win

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NEW YORK – Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. earned his record 77th single-season North American stakes victory when he guided Dr B to victory in the $200,000 Go for Wand at Aqueduct.

The 30-year-old native of Puerto Rico broke the old mark of 76 set by the late Hall of Fame rider Garrett Gomez in 2007.

“This is great. Amazing feeling,” said Ortiz, Jr., who won the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey from 2018-20. “Gomez did it in 2007 and he was a great rider, one of the best in the game. I’m so happy just to be a part of this. I love this sport.”

Ortiz Jr. won the Belmont Stakes with Mo Donegal in June to go with Breeders’ Cup victories in the Juvenile, Filly & Mare Sprint and Sprint. He also earned nine other Grade 1 wins in New York, including Life Is Good in the Woodward and Whitney and Nest in the Alabama and Coaching Club Oaks. He won riding titles at Belmont’s spring-summer meet and Saratoga’s summer meet.

Ortiz Jr. leads North American riders with 304 overall victories this year. His purse earnings totaled over $35.8 million going into Saturday’s races, which already surpassed his single-season record of $34.1 million in 2019.

Appeals court strikes down federal horseracing rules act

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NEW ORLEANS — Congress unconstitutionally gave too much power to a nonprofit authority it created in 2020 to develop and enforce horseracing rules, a federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled Friday.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, or HISA, is “facially unconstitutional.”

The authority created by the act was meant to bring uniform policies and enforcement to horseracing amid doping scandals and racetrack horse deaths. But the 5th Circuit – in two rulings issued Friday – ruled in favor of opponents of the act in lawsuits brought by horseracing associations and state officials in Texas, Louisiana and West Virginia.

The Federal Trade Commission has the ultimate authority to approve or reject HISA regulations, but it can’t modify them. And the authority can reject proposed modifications.

Three 5th Circuit judges agreed with opponents of the act – including the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and similar groups in multiple states – that the setup gave too much power to the nongovernmental authority and too little to the FTC.

“A cardinal constitutional principle is that federal power can be wielded only by the federal government. Private entities may do so only if they are subordinate to an agency,” Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote for the panel that ruled in the Texas case.

The same panel, which also included judges Carolyn Dineen King and Kurt Engelhardt, cited the Texas ruling in a separate order in favor of horseracing interests and regulators challenging HISA in a different case.

The chair of the horseracing authority’s board of directors said it would ask for further court review. Friday’s ruling could be appealed to the full 5th Circuit court of the Supreme Court.

“If today’s ruling were to stand, it would not go into effect until January 10, 2023 at the earliest,” Charles Scheeler said in an email. “We are focused on continuing our critical work to protect the safety and integrity of Thoroughbred racing, including the launch of HISA’s Anti-Doping and Medication Control Program on January 1, 2023.”

The ruling was criticized by Marty Irby, executive director of the Animal Wellness Action organization. “Over the course of three Congresses, the most brilliant legal minds on Capitol Hill addressed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act’s constitutionality and ultimately decided that the Federal Trade Commission’s limited oversight was sufficient,” Irby said in an email.

Among the subjects covered by the authority’s rules and enforcement were jockey safety (including a national concussion protocol), the riding crop and how often riders can use it during a race, racetrack accreditation, and the reporting of training and veterinary records.

Animal rights groups, who supported the law, pointed to scandals in the industry involving medication and the treatment of horses.

Duncan wrote that in declaring HISA unconstitutional, “we do not question Congress’s judgment about problems in the horseracing industry. That political call falls outside our lane.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, hailed the ruling on Twitter, calling HISA a “federal takeover of Louisiana horse racing.”