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Two weeks ago, the Thoroughbred Board of the Maryland Racing Commission voted to ban the use of the drugs Butazolidin and Lasix at that state's tracks. The decision was made after six months of hearings and testimony before the five-member board and will become effective Jan. 1, 1980, when the winter race meeting opens at Bowie.
Butazolidin, or Bute, is an anti-inflammatory drug that reduces swelling, and in turn pain, particularly in an animal's joints. By using it, a trainer is able to run a horse more often. When properly employed, Lasix controls respiratory ailments and bleeding in the throat and nostrils, a condition sometimes encountered in racehorses. Use of Lasix has been legal at Maryland tracks since 1974; Bute has been allowed since 1975. The approvals were granted after horsemen convinced the racing commission that a permissive medication program was needed if horses were to meet the demands of year-round racing. Other states have since followed Maryland's lead.
But now many racing officials feel that abuses resulting from legalizing the drugs outweigh the benefits. At Pimlico in 1978, jockey Robert Pineda died of injuries suffered in a four-horse, chain-reaction spill that was triggered when a horse with a bad leg that had been treated with Bute stumbled. And although only one horse in 20 is a known bleeder, almost 75% of the horses running recently at Laurel were on the Lasix list that is posted daily. It seems that many trainers will give Lasix to their non-bleeders to discourage their being claimed. Lasix, a powerful diuretic, also can be used to camouflage other drugs that are not permitted, such as Sublimaze or Stadol, by producing such a volume of urine that testing for trace elements is virtually impossible.
"The intent of the medication program has been abused so much that it is hard to justify," says Robert W. Banning, chairman of the Maryland Thoroughbred Board. "The biggest industry cloud that we have comes around medication."
Predictably, not everyone was happy with the decision. Fendall Clagett, president of the Maryland, Delaware, Charles Town division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, called the board's action "intolerable" and said it would result in smaller fields and financial setbacks for Maryland racing.
"Abolishing medication may sound good, but it's naive and ignorant," said King T. Leatherbury, one of the nation's leading trainers, in testifying against the ban. "I could live without the Bute easier than without Lasix. If you have a horse that needs Bute, he might depreciate in value without it, and he may race less. But still you're in action. Whereas, you may have a $30,000 horse that really bleeds, and without the Lasix, that horse is going to be worth zero."
Dr. Thomas Tobin, a professor of veterinary medicine and toxicology at the University of Kentucky, told the commission that giving Bute to a horse is comparable to giving aspirin to humans. "The primary action of Bute is to block pain due to inflammation," he said. "But it does not block out pain entirely."
"If that's true," asked board member J. Neil McCardell, "then why is everybody so anxious to use it?"
The board's decison to ban the drugs was unanimous. Maryland now joins New York to become the only Eastern states to ban Bute and Lasix—New Jersey permits limited use of Lasix only—but Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware are expected to soon follow suit.