DEL MAR, CA – North American racing regulators have decided to consider the results of two scientific research studies that have been commissioned to help detect the deliberate administration of cobalt in racehorses before making a formal recommendation of a regulatory testing limit to commission testing.
At the RCI Model Rules Committee meeting last week, a proposed threshold was presented and later withdrawn by representatives of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC) pending further discussion by the RMTC Board of Directors. That threshold, which is based on an analysis of an RMTC-coordinated project that is funded by the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council and conducted by Dr. Heather Knych, an Assistant Professor at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, was advanced with the support of 8 of the 14 members of the RMTC Scientific Advisory Committee.
A second research project, funded by the United States Trotting Association (USTA), is near completion according to remarks made at the meeting by Ivan Axelrod, Chairman of the USTA. That project is being conducted by George Maylin, DVM, PhD, at the New York Drug Testing and Research Program at Morrisville State College in New York. He is assisted by Karyn Malinowski, PhD, and Kenneth McKeever, MS, PhD, FACSM, the Director and Associate Director, respectively, of the Equine Science Center at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Racing regulators are concerned that cobalt treatments may be given to racehorses with an intent to affect performance by inducing red blood cell production similar to the prohibited use of erythropoietin (EPO). All horses have some degree of cobalt in their system as a result of diet and environmental factors. Excessive amounts may indicate a deliberate administration, above and beyond what would be considered appropriate or normal for vitamin or mineral supplements.
Concerns have been raised about horses with extremely elevated levels of cobalt and regulators are eager to better understand if an equine welfare threat exists.
In 2009, the Ontario Racing Commission issued a notice from then-Veterinary Supervisor, Dr. Bruce Duncan, who noted that “when administered in appropriate quantities, there is likely very little performance benefit. And when used in excess, this element can be toxic to horses.”
The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) has issued the following notice to horsemen and veterinarians:
"Cobalt toxicity has been associated with myocardial (heart muscle) and other organ pathology in humans and other animals. High cobalt levels have been associated with the parenteral or oral administration of cobalt salts. While there is no documented evidence of cobalt toxicity in racehorses, the CHRB considers the administration of cobalt salts a potential equine health and safety issue."
But the New Jersey Agriculture Experiment Station at Rutgers University indicates on their website the following:
“High blood cobalt probably would indicate high doses of B-12 being given (the trace mineral is easier to test than the actual vitamin). The calming effect would be undesirable in a racehorse. It is virtually non-toxic and rapidly excreted through the kidneys if given in large doses, so there is no negative consequence other than possibly a quieter horse. It is recommended to give B-12 to stressed horses at around 30 microgram/kg of feed. There are no requirements for cobalt established for horses so it is uncertain what normal or excessive blood concentrations of cobalt would be. The National Research Council (2007) has set the maximum tolerable intake for cobalt to be 25 mg/kg (ppm) in the total ration but admits they base that decision on data from other species. There is no indication that horses on normal rations need supplemental cobalt.”
In addition, Dr. Dionne Benson, Executive Director of the RMTC, reiterated statements at last week’s meeting that she has previously made to the press indicating that it is unclear at what point cobalt can become toxic to a horse.
The RCI Board of Directors discussed whether to handle findings of excessive levels of cobalt indicating a deliberate administration of cobalt absent a documented deficiency and veterinarian prescribed treatment as “horse tampering”.
“It’s one thing for a horse to be treated for a condition by its veterinarian, but quite another to be tampered with prior to a race,” RCI President Ed Martin said. “Tampering is bad enough, but if we find that the tampering endangers the horse, then it’s time to throw the book at someone.”
Although the RMTC-proposed threshold was withdrawn, a number of regulators had lingering questions as to the extent that data from Standardbred horses was included in their recommendation. Duncan Patterson, Chairman of RCI’s Drug Testing Standards and Practices Committee, recommended that the association consider the two studies before adopting a formal recommendation to commissions and laboratories.