Clampdown on cobalt use in racehorses continues

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Anhydrous cobalt(II) chloride.
Anhydrous cobalt(II) chloride. © Walkerma

The international umbrella group for racing industry regulators has acted to rein in the use of cobalt in horses.

The Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI) is formally notifying regulators and their testing laboratories of a new policy that would make it illegal to administer cobalt to a racehorse.

The association is the only umbrella organization for official governing rule-making bodies for professional horse and greyhound racing in countries around the globe. It sets standards for racing regulation, medication policy, drug-testing laboratories, betting systems, racetrack operation, security, and off-track wagering entities.

Cobalt is a trace element which has been shown to have performance-enhancing properties. It has a similar effect to erythropoietin (EPO) in stimulating production of red blood cells. This, in effect, lifts the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, hence boosting performance.

However, it has toxic effects. It can cause damage to the thyroid gland and can be toxic to the heart in excessive amounts. It can thicken the blood and increase the risk of heart attacks.

The RCI board late last month voted to sanction the trainers of horses that were found to have a cobalt level of 50 parts per billion (ppb) or greater in blood plasma or serum with a “B” penalty, which calls for a minimum 15-day suspension and a minimum $500 fine, as well as four points on the trainers Multiple Medication Violation record.

Owners of horses that raced would also face a loss of any purse money earned and the horse would be excluded from competition until a retest at the owner’s expense proves levels have dropped to below 25ppb.

The 50ppb cutoff is based on the unanimous recommendation of the RCI’s Scientific Advisory Group, which met on April 21 to review a proposal from the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium.

The RCI Drug Testing Standards and Practices Committee unanimously backed that recommendation on April 23, 2015 and it was adopted that same day by the association’s board.

The RCI board also adopted a policy that would exclude horses from competition that were found to have a cobalt level of greater than or equal to 25ppb but below 50ppb in blood plasma or serum.

Those horses would not be allowed to return to competition until a subsequent test proved that high cobalt levels had dropped below 25ppb. Subsequent tests would be conducted at the owner’s expense.

The board opted to defer action pending further review and comment on an additional recommendation to impose a 10-year suspension on trainers of any horse found to have more than 300ppb of cobalt in blood plasma or serum.

That recommendation was supported by a majority of the Drug Testing Standards and Practices Committee Committee and five of six members of the RCI Scientific Advisory Group.

RCI policies and rules serve as a regulatory policy guide for racing jurisdictions around the world. In some instances, they can have the force of law if a jurisdiction or regulatory agency has a policy to incorporate them by reference.

Cobalt is a naturally occurring substances and horses will ingest tiny amounts in their daily rations, thus the need for a threshold in testing.

It is understood that it is generally given to racehorses in the form of a cobalt salt – cobalt chloride. No prescription is needed in most jurisdictions to obtain it.

What is cobalt?

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