- Published: Monday, 06 July 2020 13:23
Unless the Maryland Racing Commission directs otherwise, there will be no 2-year-old races in Maryland in 2020 in light of the refusal of The Stronach Group, owner of the Maryland Jockey Club, to card 2-year-old races unless they are lasix-free.
In March 2019, TSG announced that it would impose a ban on lasix in horses born after 2018 at its racetracks. The action stemmed from a series of catastrophic injuries at Santa Anita—though it was widely acknowledged that lasix had nothing to do with that situation and the announcement was considered a misdirection to deflect criticism of the company’s safety and welfare practices and track maintenance. Subsequently, TSG joined with a coalition of racetracks that announced they would seek to ban lasix in 2-year-olds beginning in 2020 and all stakes races beginning in 2021.
The Boards of Directors of the MTHA and Maryland Horse Breeders Association, in response to the TSG announcement, met jointly to review the TSG lasix announcement. The Boards determined to issue a joint statement in opposition, and it was released on April 24, 2019. In response, TSG President Belinda Stronach asked to meet with both groups, and a meeting was held at Laurel Park during Preakness week in 2019.
At the meeting, the group discussed the situation and sought to have Ms. Stronach appreciate how the racing industry in the Mid-Atlantic region works collaboratively to ensure that jurisdictions adopt the same rules and regulations in an effort to continually build upon uniformity for the benefit of horsemen, racetracks and the public. She acknowledged that Maryland is not California or Florida—the other states where the company owns racetracks—and agreed to work collectively with Maryland leaders on the lasix issue and not impose any mandates that would put Maryland at a severe competitive disadvantage with its surrounding states.
The groups also indicated a willingness to discuss lasix policies and told Ms. Stronach that they would be willing to provide meaningful funds for research to find a suitable alternative to Lasix that would control respiratory bleeding in the horse and not be necessary on race day. Both the MTHA and MHBA invited Ms. Stronach to join in the funding effort.
To date, Ms. Stronach has made no effort to meet with the horsemen and breeders or engage in any discussion about changing lasix policy in Maryland or the Mid-Atlantic region.
At the same time, the MRC was asked whether TSG could impose a lasix ban by “house rule.” The Attorney General’s Office, in a letter of advice to the MRC, stated:
“Clearly, COMAR 09.10.03.08 permits administration of race-day lasix. Accordingly, because the administration of lasix is allowable on race day, implementing a house rule forbidding its administration would be in contravention of the current regulations … Accordingly, it is the advice of this office that the potential imposition of a house rule by the licensee to prohibit the administration of race-day lasix is not allowable without modification of COMAR 01.10.03.08.”
Subsequently, during the negotiations last fall for funding the proposed Racing and Community Development Act for Pimlico Race Course and Laurel—in which substantial funding was sought from the horsemen and breeders for the next 30 years—both Boards made clear that a process for future medication policy, among other items, would need to be resolved in order for any permanent funding commitments could be finalized. In reliance on the belief that such a process would be agreed upon in any long-term agreement required in legislation, both groups agreed to support the plan to make it financially viable. Had TSG been forthright with both Boards at the time about its plans to impose its own lasix policies without any discussion or regulatory review, and the manner in which TSG actually planned to proceed, it is highly unlikely that either Board would have committed to funding the Redevelopment Plan for the next 30 years.
As it became apparent when live racing resumed May 30 that the MJC was not carding 2-year-old races, repeated inquiries to the MJC and TSG by the MTHA were met with explanations having nothing to do with lasix policy until June 18 when suddenly, and without any prior notice or discussion with the MTHA and MHBA, TSG advised the MRC by letter, and in a Press Release issued at the same time, that it intended to begin carding non-lasix 2-year-old races beginning June 24 by “house rule” despite the Attorney General’s opinion to the contrary.
In a legal brief filed with the MRC, TSG asserted that it did not need the racing commission’s approval, that the regulations did not apply to the company, that it had the right to card such races under its common law powers, and that the regulation on bleeders was poorly written and permitted TSG to card such races. In an acrimonious and contentious meeting June 25, the MRC rejected TSG’s arguments, advised the company that it could not card non-lasix races for 2-year-olds without a rule change, and referred the lasix issue to its newly formed Equine Health, Safety and Welfare Committee that was mandated by the Racing and Community Development Act of 2020.
In response to a question about whether TSG planned to card 2-year-old races under current regulations in addition to non-lasix races, TSG announced that it would refuse to card races in which the horses could be administered lasix, notwithstanding that Maryland law permits horses to receive such a medication.
In an effort to defuse the crisis, get 2-year-old races carded, and help the industry continue to recover from the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, the MTHA Board of Directors on July 1 offered to TSG to permit 2-year-old races to be carded for the next 90 days, with 50% of such races to be run under the current rules and 50% of the races to be run lasix-free, and commence discussions with TSG and the new MRC Safety and Welfare Committee on future lasix policy.
The offer was promptly rejected by TSG, but TSG offered that it would be willing to card some non-lasix Maryland-bred 2-year-old races with bonuses paid by TSG. The MTHA unanimously rejected this offer.
Which brings us to the current situation. The manner in which this matter has been raised and handled by TSG, particularly in light of the history of this issue over the past year, commitments it made to the Maryland racing community that were not honored, and the current economic crisis in Maryland racing where it has lost two-and-a-half months of live racing, pari-mutuel revenue and video lottery terminal revenue because of the shutdown and currently can only afford to race twice a week, is bewildering to say the least.
Trainers have been conditioning 2-year-olds for months waiting for a race. Owners and breeders are taking a major financial hit, particularly with Maryland-bred 2-year-olds that must race in state to qualify for the lucrative owner and breeder bonuses that are depended upon to sustain their operations. On July 1, a $40,000 maiden special weight event at Delaware Park was split into two divisions, each with seven horses—almost all Maryland-based.
We are appalled and disheartened by the defiant manner and tone in which TSG has chosen to act. We have no problem discussing and reviewing Lasix policy in racing. It has been a decade since the industry conducted an intensive scientific and political review of its Lasix program, and the current regulatory scheme, the most uniform in racing, should be reviewed.
To its credit, the MRC wants to undertake a review before changing current regulatory policy and agrees the discussion shall be regional in scope. There are scientific, equine safety and welfare, integrity and public policy issues to be considered. Apparently, TSG does not want this discussion. Rather, it simply wants to dictate policy to trusted partners without any discussion and review and is holding Maryland racing and breeding hostage to achieve its goals.
In the process, TSG is causing economic havoc and has badly damaged a decade of partnership, trust and progress in Maryland racing—the renaissance of Maryland racing—as all stakeholders and the MRC have worked collectively to lift the industry and keep disagreements behind closed doors. If successful in its strategy,TSG could set a precedent going forward that could have them dictating industry policy without any input from horsemen and breeders or regulatory oversight by imposing their own rules and regulations and in the process, reduce this industry to division and acrimony.
The MTHA regrets that the possibility remains there will be no 2-year-old racing in Maryland this year. As was stated at the June 25 MRC meeting: “Maryland racing deserves better.” We trust the MRC recognizes it powers and responsibilities and will firmly deal with a track owner who believes it can do what it wants and without any regard for the industry at large.