The Indiana Horse Racing Commission will consider emergency rules next Thursday, Sept. 4, to regulate cobalt, a potentially dangerous substance to horses that many believe mimics blood-doping agents like erythropoietin (EPO).
If the commission approves the recommendations made by executive director Joe Gorajec, Indiana will become the first North American racing jurisdiction to regulate cobalt.
If approved, new regulations would become effective for post-race testing on Sept. 30, with an out-of-competition program going into effect Jan. 1, 2015.
Gorajec, after becoming concerned that excessive use of cobalt may be a pervasive problem in Indiana racing, ordered testing of samples from all three breeds regulated by the commission: Standardbreds, Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses.
A total of 355 blood samples were tested at the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Lexington, Ky., over 23 racing days (12 at the Hoosier Park Standardbred track and 11 at Indiana Grand, where Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses compete).
Results showed that 21 of the 354 samples showed an excessive amount of cobalt (defined as higher than 25 parts per billion, or 5.9 percent. The highest concentration was 1,127, found in a Thoroughbred, a level 45 times higher than the proposed permitted threshold. The median level in the 127 Thoroughbreds tested was 1.6 ppb.
By breed, the numbers above the 25 ppb threshold level were: Standardbred, 14 of 180 samples (7.8 percent); Thoroughbreds, 4 of 127 (3.1 percent); Quarter Horses, 3 of 47 (6.4 percent).
The report goes on to say that, because only about one in five horses is tested, it is likely over 100 horses competing over 23 days of racing had excessive cobalt levels.
This is the first time testing results for cobalt levels has been made public in the U.S.
“A review of these results indicate that excessive cobalt administration is jeopardizing the integrity of Indiana's racing product and endangering the health and welfare of racehorses,” Gorajec wrote in his staff report to the commissioners. “Immediate action by the Indiana Horse Racing Commission is recommended.”
Gorajec is advising Indiana's racing commissioners that “an emergency exists,” warranting quick action on cobalt.
“Test results have demonstrated that cobalt abuse is ongoing in all breeds at both of Indiana's pari-mutuel racetracks,” he wrote in his report. “It is likely occurring on a daily basis.”
Because the state's primary testing laboratories – LGC Science in Lexington, Ky., and Industrial Laborities in Wheat Ridge, Colo. – currently can not test for cobalt levels, Gorajec is recommending the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory be used to for testing, with the University of California-Davis lab as a confirmation lab on split samples.
The threshold level of 25 parts per billion would apply to both post-race and out-of-competition testing.
Cobalt would be identified as a Class A substance, bringing the most severe penalties for violations.
The only actions to date on cobalt, other than warnings from racing racing commissions on potential harmful side-effects, is a move by Meadowlands harness track owner Jeff Gural to exclude trainers whose horses tested at significant levels. The Association of Racing Commissioners International issued a press release Aug. 4 on cobalt but have yet to set a model rule threshold level.
High levels of cobalt have been identified as a health risk in humans and laboratory animals, leading to heart dysfunction and thyroid impairment. Side effects of excessive cobalt use in horses is not specifically known.
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