medicating racehorses

By Christopher M. Riggs, The Hong Kong Jockey Club Equine Hospital Department of Veterinary Clinical Services, and WEVA Board Member

It’s the question that always ignites a fierce debate in the racing world: Should people be able to race Thoroughbreds under the influence of therapeutic medication?

Some believe restricting the use of furosemide (Salix or Lasix), anti-inflammatory drugs, and other medications so they do not affect a horse’s body when it races can have a profoundly negative impact on horse welfare. Conversely, many others believe racing horses while under the influence of drugs is bad for equine welfare, demeans the sport, and undermines the ability to select for optimal genotype. As society increasingly questions the use of animals in sport, this discussion becomes more relevant. It is probably not melodramatic to state that the outcome of the debate could impact the future existence of racing itself.

Many racing jurisdictions around the world are signatories to Article Six of the International Agreement on Breeding, Racing and Wagering, published by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities. The article, entitled “Biological Integrity of the Horse,” sets the standard for practices that could artificially influence the horse’s ability and control. Included in these is the use of therapeutic medications, which are considered “prohibited substances” in racing. Specifically relevant, the article states that, “Following any therapy given to a racehorse, a sufficient period should elapse prior to racing such that the therapy (i) is not capable of giving the horse an advantage or causing it to be disadvantaged contrary to the horse’s inherent merits or (ii) is detrimental to its welfare.”

In other words, while therapeutic medication use is appropriate in the right circumstances, allowing a horse to compete before the drugs have “washed out” of his system is not. This rule probably makes immediate sense to those interested in fair play in that it stands to prevent race manipulation via drug use. However, it becomes more complicated if one believes therapeutic substances have a role in racing to protect the horse from disease or injury in competition.

Research shows that exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH, “bleeding” from the lungs) severity and incidence are reduced following pre-race furosemide administration. Some people believe anti-inflammatory painkillers will allow an uncomfortable horse to bear weight more evenly on its limbs and, so, prevent fractures, although recent evidence indicates otherwise. These folks might argue that “if a medication lessens the disease or injury risk for an individual by ‘restoring’ or ‘maintaining’ its health without altering performance, surely there is a moral imperative to use it.” However, there are strong arguments to counter this perspective.

The freedom to run a Thoroughbred under the influence of medication increases the likelihood that an animal still recovering from disease or injury is forced to compete. Furthermore, medications can disguise subtle signs that could precede more serious issues, thereby precluding an early diagnosis and prevention of that injury. An intrinsic component of athletic competition is the ability to prevail despite the physical demands of training and competition. While injury or disease might arise through misfortune, in many cases it reflects a weakness in the horse’s tissues or its training program. To prop either up through medication might be undermining the very essence of the athletic pursuit.

In addition, medication use can prevent or mask conditions that are associated with a particular genotype. Indeed, there is increasing evidence that many conditions affecting Thoroughbred racehorses, such as EIPH, have a hereditary component. Disguising these conditions through medications perpetuates these negative genotypes by removing the driving force to eliminate affected bloodlines through selective breeding. Lastly, society will undoubtedly question the morality of a sport involving animals that depends on medication.

The debate is unlikely to be resolved soon, and no doubt stakeholders in different racing authorities will argue their viewpoints with equal vigor. However, no one can avoid observing that in the many jurisdictions where medication in racing is prohibited, horses fair well, and the fearful predictions of those who remain in favor of medication are shown to be unfounded.