Is Cobalt a Killer in Horses?
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.