LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Hoping to show that horse racing can wean itself off its reliance on drugs, Barry Irwin has joined a group of prominent thoroughbred owners voluntarily pledging to run their 2-year-olds this year without any race-day medication.
In doing so, they put themselves in the middle of a debate about the role of drugs in thoroughbred racing that is getting attention in Congress.
The group, featuring a stable of well-known names in horse ownership and breeding circles, vowed to compete in this year's 2-year-old season without race-day use of the commonly used anti-bleeding drug furosemide, which is marketed as Lasix and Salix. It's the only medication allowed to be given to horses on race day in the U.S. The drug is used commonly to treat pulmonary hemorrhaging in racehorses.
The drug is banned across much of the world because it is considered a performance enhancer.
Irwin, whose Team Valor International won last year's Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom, said Thursday he hopes the willingness of some leading owners to compete without race-day use of the drug will change perceptions in the sport.
"Most of these guys are afraid to train without it, and they have scared the hell out of their owners, telling them all sorts of things could happen to their horses if they don't have them run on Lasix," he said. "I've been around long enough that I know that's not the case."
The list of owners taking the pledge was released Thursday by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, a national trade organization based in Lexington, Ky. The list included nearly 40 owners and racing stables.
Irwin said he had a 2-year-old horse reach the winner's circle during Churchill Downs' recent meet without any race-day medication.
Longtime breeder Arthur Hancock, owner of Stone Farm near Paris, Ky., said reducing racing's use of drugs would be a winner with the betting public. He sees the pervasiveness of furosemide as a reason race horses aren't as durable as they used to be.
Hancock said he has a handful of 2-year-olds racing this year.
"I'm doing this because it's the right thing to do," he said. "If I lose a competitive advantage to somebody, so be it. I'm going to try it until the end of the year and take a stand and see how it goes.
"Hopefully one of us will have a champion running without it, and maybe that will convince even more people," he added.
Among others making the pledge are Roy and Gretchen Jackson, the owners of 2006 Derby winner Barbaro, Lane's End Farm owner William S. Farish and Seth Hancock, who syndicated Secretariat.
Bill Casner, who won the 2010 Derby with Super Saver, called race-day medications a "failed experiment."
"Our racing industry thrived in a time prior to permitted race-day medications," said Casner, who also took the pledge.
Race-day use of furosemide is a divisive issue in horse racing.
About half of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association's board members joined in the pledge, said Andy Schweigardt, an official with the group. The issue came up at a board meeting this spring, he said.
"It's quite a hot-button issue for everyone," he said.
Kentucky horse racing regulators recently approved an eventual ban on race-day use of furosemide in graded or listed stakes races, making it the first state in the nation to take such action.
The measure still needs the approval from state lawmakers.
The measure would take effect Jan. 1, 2014. It would prohibit use of furosemide less than 24 hours before post time for 2-year-olds competing in graded or listed stakes races. The ban would apply to 2- and 3-year-old horses competing in those races in 2015. The Kentucky Derby, run at Churchill Downs in Louisville, is for 3-year-old horses.
In 2016, the ban would apply to any horse entered to race in graded or listed stakes races in Kentucky.
Graded or listed stakes races amount to a fraction of all races in Kentucky but carry the biggest prize money and attract the upper-echelon horses.
Meanwhile, legislation proposed in Congress would ban race-day medication in horse racing. Top horse racing industry figures took competing sides at a recent Senate committee hearing on whether the sport needs federal oversight to ban doping.