Is Cobalt a Killer in Horses?

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Cobalt isn’t listed in the 15 pages of drugs published by the Association of Racing Commissioners International in its “Uniform Classification Guidelines for Foreign Substances.” So it caught many people by surprise last week when Jeff Gural, owner of Meadowlands Racing and Entertainment, said two trainers would be banned from the New Jersey harness track because horses in their care tested out of competition were found to have massive amounts of Cobalt in their system.

But should it really have been a surprise?

Articles in scientific journals discussing use of Cobalt for blood doping by human athletes have been around nearly a decade. Experiments with laboratory rats show that Cobalt improved endurance. Administration of Cobalt in human athletes has similar results to recombinant human erythropoietin (EPO), adding red blood cells. It is inexpensive and easy to acquire, but difficult to find in drug tests because the detection window is brief – between four and six hours.

Cobalt also can be fatal.

A 2013 article in Hematology magazine, entitled “Blood manipulation: current challenges from an anti-doping perspective,” said chronic Cobalt exposure can have severe side effects.

“Regular intake of high Cobalt salt doses comes with a real risk of organ injury, such as thyroid dysfunction, cardiotoxicity, and heart failure,” Danish author Jakob Morkeberg writes. HIF’s (hypoxia-inducible factor stabilizers) can affect several other genes from the EPO gene, some of which might have tumor-growth-promoting potential. Therefore, using this substance could pose a real health risk to the athlete.”

That’s what the Ontario Racing Commission advised in August 2009 when it posted a notice to the industry under the headline, “Warning: if used in excess, Cobalt sulfate can harm your horse.”

The dangers of Cobalt were known long before the substance was used as a performance-enhancing drug in human or equine athletics.

In the mid-1960s a brewery in Quebec, Canada, was among several North American beer makers to add Cobalt to its formula to stabilize foam. An alarming number of heavy beer drinkers in Quebec developed heart disease and died from cardiovascular failure, and the evidence led to the breweries that were adding Cobalt to their beer. The practice was quickly stopped, and so, too, did the deaths.

Tests taken out of competition by security personnel for Meadowlands were sent to the Hong Kong Jockey Club laboratory for evaluation. According to sources, the Standardbred trainers whose horses tested for high levels of Cobalt were also administering large doses of thyroxin to reduce risk of thyroid problems. This is not just a North American problem: Australian racing authorities, concerned with possible Cobalt use, are developing threshold levels in urine.

All that’s needed to test for Cobalt is an ICP mass spectrometer and personnel trained on the diagnostic equipment. But post-race testing is thought to be virtually useless, since the substance is detectable only for a short time after dosing.

In the wake of last week’s actions by Meadowlands in neighboring New Jersey, the New York Gaming Commission said it is acquiring the necessary equipment and will begin testing for Cobalt.

“The Commission supports efforts by track operators to exclude parties who put horse health and safety in jeopardy and call into question the integrity of horse racing,” The New York Gaming Commission said in a statement published in the New York Daily News. “New York’s Equine Drug Testing Program is continually evolving. The Morrisville laboratory has acquired on loan the equipment to test for Cobalt. Personnel are being trained to test for Cobalt, and George Maylin (the director of Equine Drug Testing in New York) has been consulting with Meadowlands officials to help establish the proper thresholds for determining Cobalt positives.”

In December, the California Horse Racing Board began testing for Cobalt in horses examined post-mortem in the state’s necropsy program. However, none of the seven horses in Bob Baffert’s care that died over a 16-month period from November 2011 to March 2013 were tested for Cobalt, either at the time of the original examination or during subsequent re-testing. In the CHRB report on the investigation of the Baffert sudden death horses, the trainer admitted to investigators that all of his horses routinely were being given thyroxin.

A statement from a CHRB communications officer who indicated Arthur would not respond to questions directly said: “Cobalt has not historically been an issue in livestock deaths. The Cobalt issue in racing is fairly new. Dr. Arthur doubts that any jurisdiction was testing for Cobalt at the time of these deaths.”

Regarding the sudden death Baffert horses, the spokesman said: “Dr. Arthur contacted the lab in November to inquire about re-testing for Cobalt. He was told there were no samples left. By that, the lab meant liver samples, the tissue typically used at the lab for heavy metal testing. Upon further investigation, the lab does have samples of other tissues and fluids from all but two of the horses. The validated method of testing for Cobalt is for liver. Nonetheless, Dr. Arthur is working with his colleagues on methods and a determination of which of those other tissues would be the next best for Cobalt testing. This additional testing will be done once they have those answers.”

Gural, as the owner of Meadowlands, is circumventing commissions. His team of experts and security personnel has established a policy – testing with threshold levels – making it clear anyone giving this dangerous substance to their horses will not be welcome to participate at his racetrack.

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  • http://judgebork.wordpress.com/ Lou Baranello

    Any racetrack operator who does not follow suit with Jeff Gural is clearly demonstrating that the Bottom Line is their primary goal regardless of any circumstances.

  • Gordon calhoun

    what about regular use of colbat in horses not in training? Colbat I beleive is found in mineral salt lick blocks.

    • Tinky

      That’s what thresholds are for. Anything well above the normal amount of cobalt (or CO2, etc.) sends off warning flags.

    • Mr. Moo

      Interisting comment everthing I have has a trace mineral block, for certain pay more attn to the asay that’s on them, and pullthem till I find out

      • Charles Stillings

        the trace cobalt in your salt block is necessary for producing vitamin b12 . b12 is necessary to prevent pernicious anemia. the levels of cobalt salts these trainers give trick the body into increased hemoglobin production.the levels used are not trace.one of the samples Gural sent to China had levels so high the chemist thought the horse would have died and the horse had just won in under 1:50.

    • Linda Broussard

      Blue salt is not the type of cobalt to which this article refers. Ray Paulick (and the Meadowlands stewards) are concerned about the high levels of cobalt which would only come about via injection of pralidoxime chloride or one of the other forms used by bodybuilders and camel racers.

  • Andrew A.

    They can’t re-test in the case of Baffert because without him Horse Racing as we know it would not exist. NOT! He’s bigger than the game. NOT!

  • Tinky

    Excellent reporting, Ray.

    Having read the post, a few things should be obvious to readers. First, it is clear that the CHRB is in ‘circle the wagons’ mode. They won’t allow the man who is most knowledgeable on the topic (Rick Arthur) to respond directly to questions? Really? Gee, that certainly inspires confidence that they have nothing to hide. (Just to review, Baffert hired a P.R. firm to handle the scandal, and now this.)

    In spite of the fact that a primary side-effect of cobalt doping is thyroid problems, a fact well known to scientists who had been researching cobalt as a possible doping substance as far back as 2005, and that EVERY SINGLE ONE of Baffert’s dead horses were on Thyroid supplements, no one involved in the investigation of that extraordinary slew of horse deaths thought to test for cobalt? Really? Was it rank incompetence, or something much worse?

    “The Cobalt issue in racing is fairly new.”

    Is it? Of course not. It’s the awareness of those charged with testing that is apparently “fairly new”. It took the same guardians of the game many years to become aware of EPO, milk shaking, etc., and they’ve apparently learned nothing from those painfully drawn-out experiences. What excuse is there for U.S. jurisdictions NOT to have developed tests long before 2014? Almost 10 years passes since the science was first revealed and until another industry begins to screen, American racetracks twiddle their thumbs?

    It’s an embarrassment any way you slice it. What’s worse, is that it was wholly predictable.

    • Hamish

      Is Cobalt obtained from a vet, from a black bag supplement salesman, or perhaps via the internet? Why can’t the California investigators subpoena Baffert’s purchase records and see if at least through known purchasing sources, he was a user or not? And yes, the fact that our existing drug testing and research system wasn’t on this a long time ago is quite damning and in need of its own interrogation.

      • Linda Broussard

        You can buy blue salt (cobalt chloride in block form) from vet supply houses catering to the cattle trade. It’s in zillions of supplements (trace amounts) sold commercially for horses. THAT SAID… I’m quite sure this not how the trainers who use cobalt obtain it. I mean, you can purchase injectable pralidoxime chloride — the “good stuff” — from the same online pharmacies which cater to bodybuilders and those who race camels.

      • Linda Broussard

        Anyone with a credit card can buy the injectable form online. There’s a reason why grooms and exercise riders are periodically busted for needles, syringes and injectables: they’re buying stuff online and selling it to trainers. As for the Baffert barn, he tells his vets what he wants, and the vets provide. I don’t mean to sound condescending, but you do know that if you want to train your horse on Drano, as long as the Drano has a prescription label on it, you’re legal, right? There is no such thing as a banned substance in American racing, just a few substances with zero tolerance levels for race-day testing. Everything else has a threshold that’s considered acceptable. NOT A SINGLE MEDICATION RULE HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH EQUINE WELFARE. Not a one. It’s all about what might or might not affect performance on race day. If you don’t test above the threshold for this or that on race day, you can pump your horses full of whatever you please. If you go out regularly for cocktails with the state vet, well, you’re home free, n’est-ce pas?

        • betterthannothing

          Thank you Linda for another excellent post.

          “NOT A SINGLE MEDICATION RULE HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH EQUINE WELFARE.”

          And:

          NOT A SINGLE RACING ORGANIZATION OR AUTHORITY EXISTS TO PROTECT EQUINE WELFARE.

          Market that!

          • Raceman

            Medication rules that help horses: pushing back bute from 5 to 2 mcg so vets can identify problems in pre race exams, pushing back joint injections and advancing withdrawal period of depo to three weeks, push back of clenbuterol to 2 week withdrawal basically saying you can’t use it, etc. etc.
            organizations that help protect horses? How about the Rmtc? They do the research on these rules and even stood their ground when standardbred organizations wanted different rules for joint injections and Clen citing breed differences.

        • Raceman

          Linda, your regular posting of erroneous information on racing is getting scary. Even worse is your statement of assumptions as facts. First, it is not true that anything goes as long as its not found post race. Many jurisdictions do out of competition testing for epo etc and there are many substances that vets can’t even carry on their truck. It really shows your isolation from the real world of racing.
          Second, many rules of racing are there for the welfare of horses. Timing of joint injections have been pushed back in the new uniform medication rules and forget about using depo which is at least three weeks. Why? Because regulators and vets agree that it’s use over time effect the welfare of horses. And no, not “everything else” has a threshold. New rules allow 24 medications and everything else is not allowed. The exceptions are antibiotics, etc that don’t effect organ systems.
          I don’t know anyone in tb’s that regularly uses thyroid medication on their horses and haven’t heard anything about cobalt other than on chat rooms for Standardbreds. Usually there are whispers of these things. There are always a small few that do these ridiculous things to horses, but it doesn’t mean all trainers are pumping their horses full of drano.

          Your comment insinuating that if you go for drinks with the state vet you get away with drug use is laughable. I’m sure it would also insult many commission members that have worked hard and are ethical. Drug testing is done by #.

          Use your “private investigator” skills and learn the rules. Better yet, read the many articles which outlined the thought process behind them before you expose yourself further.

      • thomas hadley

        because baffert is the Teflon don he owns everbody

  • Richard C

    Respected turf scribe Bob “Railbird” Roberts never wavered on his feelings of oats & water for the equine athlete. If a pro sport with humans REQUIRED a drug cocktail for competition, the outcry in the media would facilitate change…..or find the sport crumble due to constant use of the syringe, pills and “special” treatments in the shadows.

    • Lexington 4

      I have never wavered on some of my thoughts about sportswriters.

  • Barry Irwin

    Gural is on the right track, because what is most important is the intent of the user.

  • Richard C

    Your ignorance on what I wrote is not astonishing.

    • Bubba

      your poor use of sarcasm (if that what you call it) on this forum is hard to distinguish from the usual incompetency here. I still read what you wrote over and over and it is the same uninformed comments usually here. So I still am not sure. Ignorance must be bliss.

      • Richard C

        Your incompetence is hilarious. Keep it rolling, Bubsie.

      • Richard C

        Your incompetence is hilarious.

      • Richard C

        ……some pretty bulky use of the language in your latest tirade. It seems you get quite nervous when challenged.

  • Ben van den Brink

    At least Gural decided to the samples in Hong Kong were they were detected.

  • betterthannothing

    “Cobalt isn’t listed in the 15 pages of drugs published by the Association of Racing Commissioners International…”

    Racing must become pro-active and use abuse/cheating prevention instead of being reactive and endlessly chasing after its abusive cheaters because it attracts characters that don’t give a damn about risking the lives of horses and riders for personal glory, fame and enrichment. Modern security/surveillance/tracking technology and tight substance control need to be used to protect horses, riders, honest horsemen and bettors.

    “Articles in scientific journals discussing use of Cobalt for blood doping by human athletes have been around nearly a decade.”

    Yet another reason why the USADA and FBI are needed to prevent cheating and end the dishonest and dangerous dominance of miracle trainers and their matching owners and vets.

  • Denise Mosimann

    BRAVO Jeff for stepping up!!!!

  • cheri

    Thank you again, Mr. Paulick, for an excellent article. Bless Gural and Barry Irwin…

  • Elliot ness

    These horse trainers and vets are some kinda slick. Wow. What’s is sad is that now that the trainers and vets know the jig is up on cobalt and thyrol , it will be on to the next cocktail. The only answer is to appoint Barry Irwin as the racing czar, plus if there could be a Latino hotline for reporting needle jabs to the czar., 10000 pesos reward if it leads to conviction.

  • Trey

    Everything’s a killer in horses! Hay and oats everything else should be banned!

  • Beenaroundalongtime

    It has been very clear to all, that Cobalt was the factor
    in the Baffert sudden death and Paynter cases.
    Hamish suggested subpeona of Baffert’s purchase record !!
    Not CHRB, they are the weak link.
    The FEDS would move in and have the power to do that.
    It’s about time.

  • biggar

    Good job of connecting Baffert & colbalt with nothing but pure speculation. It will get you a lot of traffic. Now, if something does come of it I will apologize. If nothing does, you should apologize.

  • GreggJ

    “Is Cobalt a Killer in Horses?”
    Ask Bob, he had seven…

  • GreggJ

    Surprise, my comment deleted, shocker.

    • Jay

      Concerning deletions or limitations, why were comments regarding David Jacobson’s exoneration by the NYRA limited to nine, Ray.

  • Mimi Hunter

    Thank you, Ray, for the article. And thank you for tying Mr. Baffert in on the strength of the general thyroxin use. The problem there isn’t really that horses died, it’s that they stopped. It’s too bad that we have to test for known substances – wish we could do a test beforehand that would give a ‘picture’ of the blood make up so that later we could just test to see if there is anything foreign is there. But that’s probably ‘Star Wars’ stuff.

  • Big Red

    this is all good stuff but………
    why the secrecy over naming the two trainers banned from the Big M???

  • Beach

    In very basic terms, most of the elements/metals present or needed by mammals are such in TRACE amounts. One exception to this might be Iron, but that is also something one can have too much of. If this stuff has been given in vast amounts to enhance performance or anything else, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s probably wrong.

  • Linda Broussard

    Well done, Ray Paulick. Sadly, none of it comes as a surprise because of something I figured out a while ago: if one wishes to know what certain barns use for training, peruse the MMA, the camel racing, and the bodybuilder chat rooms. If kick boxers, weightlifters and camel racers are abusing a substance, you can be 100% sure that certain trainers are abusing it as well. (Ray Paulick, I kid you not, camel racers are deeply concerned about thyroid supplements to offset cobalt’s side effects in their beloved camels.)

    • loopsteer

      Linda I took your advice and surfed the bodybuilder, kick boxers, weightlifters and camel racers blogs Cobalt & thyroid supplements are used to raise there red blood cell counts for sure . I also noticed the same bunch more often then that used thyroid supplements & Clenbuterol together as a stack to build lean muscle mass. I know there are some very educated bloggers that post on PR . My question to them is with the use of all of these thyroid supplements would it make the thyroid gland cease to preform normally or even become somewhat trophic? If you were to claim a horse from a trainer that uses thyroid supplements what would happen? Just wondering

  • JERRY

    ASK BOB “HEART ATTACK” BAFFERT (OR MAYBE SOME OF HIS OWNERS) TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    IT’S TOO BAD “TWEEBSTER” CAN’T TALK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Jerry

    That’s a good question to ask BOB BAFFERT………………
    He probably knows!!

  • cara james

    cobalt feed to horses humans or any other living thing can be fatal not only the metal salts that make cobalt cause organ failure ,its also radioactive, the us had a ban on colbalt for year and everyone in the usa was told to remove all item from the home and walls ,i remember my mother taking all her cobalt china and the walls in my brothers rooms were remove and new walls put up, yes my mom died from bone cancer,,who knows ,but i am sure that didnt help,also all the miners that mined this cobalt died or going fast,and the families too because of the dust on the miners clothes had been handled by the family, so if you want to eat radioactive poison, go ahead but dont poison pets or family members, you will go to jail

  • cara james

    these dammed vets that ok all this doping to these animals should be in jail and lose all lic,in any or all states,when some one tells you to give lasix to a horse, the horse has blown out blood vessels in his lungs,that means pushed too hard and too long,blood imflames the lung tissue and sets up a histamine affect causes the lungs to fill with fluid , and pnuemonia starts up if the horse is not pushed beyond its abilities,this does not happen, continued abuse causes lung scare tissue , that can cause blebs, and collapsed lungs, then horsie go bye bye so when the vet jacks you with the bill after doping it with cobalt lasix and thyroid meds, hope the horse made it passed the finish line and everyone get a piece,isnt that what its all about money!! f !! the horses ,its money moneymoney!

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