Swift investigation into Australian cobalt positives highlights U.S. regulatory inefficiencies

Racing Victoria in Australia introduced a local rule on April 14, 2014 that designates cobalt as a prohibited substance at a concentration greater than 200 micrograms per litre in urine. Effective Jan. 1, 2015, Australia nationwide has adopted the same rule on cobalt thresholds for Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds.

Last week, Racing Victoria Chairman of the Stewards Terry Bailey issued a statement that horses for the stables of trainers Peter Moody, Mark Kavanagh, and Danny O’Brien had returned samples in which cobalt was detected above the permitted threshold. Chairman Bailey stated, “It is now our priority to gather all facts to determine the circumstances surrounding each case. We will not be putting a timeline on the completion of this process and will not be commenting on the specifics of each case while our investigations continue."

All three Melbourne trainers are highly regarded horsemen. Moody was the trainer for the brilliant Black Caviar, O’Brien has trained a Caulfield Cup and Cox Plate winner, and Kavanagh trained Melbourne Cup winner Shocking.

So what is cobalt and does it possess performance enhancing qualities? Cobalt is a heavy metal salt that is essential in the body to make red blood cells and is present in all animals at varying low trace levels. Many racing officials, veterinarians, and scientists around the world believe that similar to EPO [erythropoietin] in human athletes, cobalt at higher than trace levels can produce an increased number of red blood cells, which in turn allows more oxygen to travel through the horse’s body, therefore reducing the onset of fatigue. In addition, increased levels of cobalt in a horse can also have severe adverse effects on a horse’s health. 

Concerns have been raised about how the thresholds were set, but Australia would seem to be on firm ground in how they developed them. Initially, in 2013, Harness Racing for New South Wales Integrity Manager Reid Sanders became aware of possible cobalt use as a performance-enhancing agent in harness horses. Sanders conducted research in Australia, the UK, the U.S., and Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Jockey Club has a more stringent threshold level of 100 micrograms per litre (half the Australian threshold), and reportedly has never encountered a positive in testing for cobalt since 2006. 

It is important to note that after Australia first undertook research on Cobalt in 2013, by Jan.1, 2015, the entire country had a policy on thresholds in Thoroughbreds and harness horses. 

While there has been some conjecture, particularly in the U.S. as to how much of a performance enhancing agent cobalt truly is, the Australian and Hong Kong authorities do believe that higher than natural levels of cobalt can increase a horse’s performance. That does appear to possibly have been the case in this instance in Australia. Four of the five horses that have tested positive for cobalt seem to have improved performances over their prior race results. Three of these horses were trained by O’Brien: Caravan Rolls On, Bondeiger, and De Little Engine. Moody trained Lidari, and Kavanagh trained Magicool. 

In an article in Australia’s Herald-Sun, Matt Stewart referred back to the performance ratings assigned to these horses in the races in which they tested positive:

    • Bondeiger-ran a career best by 3 1/2 lengths
    • De Little Engine-ran a career best by seven lengths
    • Lidari-ran his best race in Australia by a length 
    • Magicool-rated a career best performance by 5 1/2 lengths 

Caravan Rolls On was the only horse said to have underperformed, finishing eighth.

Racing Victoria Chairman of Stewards Terry Bailey commented further on their investigation last week:

“Our investigations will determine whether any or all of the trainers will be charged with a breach of the Rules of Racing. They have the presumption of innocence and are free to continue racing at this time.”

Although the cases in Australia are far from closed, they show one thing: testing and rules are working as intended. Can the same be said elsewhere in the world?

International cobalt thresholds in urine and blood were discussed at the International Conference of Racing Analysts and Veterinarians (ICRAV) in September 2014. At the conference, there were discussions regarding cobalt in Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates, and the U.S. No other major jurisdictions had substantive reports.

Turning to developments in U.S., despite the diligent efforts of talented industry veterinarians, scientists, and regulators, no consensus has been reached on thresholds that would indicate improved racing performance or levels that would be toxic or harmful for the horse.

For example, at the October California Horse Racing Board committee meeting of the Medication and Track Safety, equine medical director Dr. Rick Arthur did a comprehensive situational analysis on cobalt and discussed some possible recommendations for cobalt thresholds to be presented to the Board in the near future. Similarly in November, Dr. Mary Scollay, the equine medical director of the Kentucky Racing Commission, told a Kentucky legislative subcommittee that cobalt potentially had performance enhancing qualities but also had potential toxic effects by contributing to exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH). 

In a news release on Oct. 16, 2014, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium announced that its Scientific Advisory Committee was not prepared to set a recommended threshold for cobalt until “research performed by Dr. George Maylin for the United States Trotting Association is made available for review.” 

Dr. Maylin is the Director of Equine Drug Testing in New York. On Sept. 4 last year – more than a month before the RMTC announcement - the New York Gaming Commission declared that it will “issue a standard 10-year suspension to anyone who violates the harness rules prohibiting the use of a substance that abnormally oxygenates a horse’s blood, including the supra-dietary administration of cobalt salts.” However, to “enhance the efficacy of this new program” the commission declined to publish their laboratory threshold for cobalt. The rule applies only to Standardbreds, and one wonders about the commission’s ability to enforce a 10-year suspension absent a published threshold. 

Two other jurisdictions have instituted rules with published thresholds and penalties. The Indiana Horse Racing Commission announced that effective Sept. 30, 2014, there would be a regulatory threshold of 25 parts per billion for cobalt. The Indiana Commission has stated that they have seen a significant decrease in cobalt concentration in samples now that a regulatory threshold has been established. In New Jersey, Jeff Gural, the owner and operator of the Meadowlands, one of the premier Standardbred tracks in the country (as well as two smaller harness facilities in upstate New York), is not waiting for his regulators to take action. Under house rules, Gural has instituted his own out-of-competition tests with a threshold of four times the standard deviation for cobalt at the normal level. Since the beginning of 2015, one trainer has been suspended and another is under investigation at the Meadowlands.

There is much more work ahead both in the U.S. and a number of other major racing jurisdictions to properly address this serious cobalt issue.

It is clear from this cobalt situation that the state-by-state decentralized nature of the medication regulation, testing, and penalties enforcement does not serve U.S. racing adequately. The U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry needs a well-funded, centralized national program for medication testing and enforcement to improve and protect the integrity and credibility of the sport. It is impossible for the industry to continue to operate a high-integrity racing program with an underfunded patchwork of state regulators of wildly varying abilities and understanding of these important issues. As former Governor of Kentucky and owner of Airdrie Stud, Brereton Jones said in an interview for this website, “Either we eliminate the problem or the problem is going to eliminate us.”

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