Integrity-Australian Racing In Spotlight

Crisis deepens

Black CaviarWith the cobalt chloride crisis gathering momentum daily, it seems the stakes have never been higher in this remarkable drama. It also appears racing’s integrity has never been as challenged.

Four Victorian trainers, including three from the upper echelons of the profession, have had horses with positive swabs to cobalt – in some cases multiple positives.

The trainers are yet to be charged but would have us believe it’s an apparition, a single mistake, some extra vitamins or supplements causing the cobalt level to go over Racing Victoria’s threshold. One of the trainers, Danny O’Brien – who has three horses to have tested positive – has been so incensed he has demanded a swift resolution and is looking for an apology from Racing Victoria.

For its part, Racing Victoria has the eyes of the international racing community watching it closely. The industry regulator has placed cobalt – above 200 micrograms per litre of urine – on its banned list of drugs.

On this list, cobalt sits alongside of EPO, “elephant juice”, narcotics, stimulants and every seriously bad drug.

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Horses found with such drugs in their system are banned from racing.   Trainers found using them on their horses face three years of disqualification. They cannot associate with any other licensed racing person, trainer, owner or jockey for the duration of that disqualification. Many in the industry believe a three-year disqualification to be career ending.

So how did we get here? Around 2005, athletes or sports scientists looking for an advantage discovered that cobalt, a cheap, freely available mineral supplement, had the same benefits as the best doping drug ever, EPO.

But cobalt is non-prescription and dirt cheap.

The problem is that cobalt is a heavy metal poison and its medical use had been abandoned because wherever it was used there were patient deaths.

Indeed in every scientific article that identified cobalt as a new potential doping drug, athletes were warned not to use it because of its toxicity and potentially fatal consequences.

Around this time racing intelligence on the US east coast received reports that cobalt, now known as “blue” or “altitude” had crept into harness racing. This threat was recognised early by the owners of a private racetrack – The Meadowlands. Independent of any jurisdiction, the owners banned a number of trainers whose horses had shown elevated levels of cobalt.

Since then the international racing community has been on high alert and has been scrambling to introduce new rules to deal with the cobalt threat. There is no doubt cobalt is a massive, performance-enhancing drug – boosting the blood count and boosting endurance. But it is toxic  and so it’s a threat, where any notion of animal welfare is discarded in the quest for a performance advantage.

The international racing community is united in dealing with cobalt and test results from all over the world have been shared to identify normal levels of cobalt, which then allows for the setting of an international threshold for urinary cobalt.

The latest data available was presented at an international racing convention late last year, gathered from post-race testing from countries including France, Britain, the US, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

The data was collected from more than 10,000 horses – including horses on normal cobalt supplements – and showed an average of 5.3 micrograms per litre, a lowest level of 0.11 and the highest rating of 78.15. Based on all these results the international racing community believe 100 is a suitable threshold for cobalt.

The level is presently in place in Hong Kong. It means there is a one-in-63,000 chance of a normally treated horse exceeding this level and therefore it is a level where one can differentiate between normally supplemented horses and those who have been doped with cobalt.

This level of 100 is half that of the 200 adopted by Racing Victoria and the Australian Racing Board, with some international analysts describing the Australian threshold as generous, which allows treatment with normal cobalt supplements for up to 12 hours before racing. Race-day treatment or medication is banned in Australia and around the world.

One statistician, in describing the Australian level as generous, said the likelihood of a horse getting into the 200 level was one-in-2.8 million.

Cobalt is a trace mineral and while it is necessary for some body functions, including red-cell production, it is only required on trace amounts.

There are no reported cases of cobalt deficiency in horses and some animal nutritionists say horses get enough cobalt from grazing and there is no role for cobalt supplementation in horses.

No neighbours! Black Caviar banks 23 on the head in the Lightning!

There are no toxicology studies on horses receiving high doses of cobalt or regular excessive cobalt treatments, but cobalt is a heavy metal that is never broken down in the body, but accumulates in tissue. This means that the animal welfare aspect of cobalt misuse is confronting.

Australia has the horses of  some high-profile trainers testing positive to a totally banned drug, which has proved fatal when used in humans.

The stakes are high, but if it helps Racing Victoria handle the issue, the race has already been run in Harness Racing NSW where cases have been heard, trainers have been disqualified for up to 10 years, and have withstood Supreme Court challenges and appeals.

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