American Racing’s Slow-Moving War on Cobalt

by | 03.30.2015 | 11:51am

The story of the tortoise and the hare is a fable – a fictitious race between a turtle and a rabbit that ends with a determined and purposeful tortoise beating a fleet-footed but over-confident rabbit to the finish line. In horse racing's version of this well-known tale, I'm betting on the rabbit.

The majority of regulatory agencies that govern the sport are the tortoise: conservative, slow moving, carrying too much of a burden to be nimble, ambling along while seemingly oblivious to the world around them.

The cheaters in horse racing, those willing to bend or break the rules to win, represent the hare: amoral and arrogant risk-takers but quick on their feet.

An example demonstrating how slowly the tortoise moves came last week with the announcement by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium that it has approved a threshold level for cobalt, a mineral many cheaters believe acts as a blood-doping agent similar to erythropoietin, or EPO, a human drug used to boost red-blood cells as a treatment for anemia. There are no scientific studies proving cobalt is a performance enhancing substance for horses, but the cheaters have their own style of research.

It's been more than five years since the Ontario Racing Commission in Canada issued a warning about cobalt being used by unscrupulous horsemen seeking an edge and putting the health of their horses at risk. It's been more than a year since Meadowlands racetrack owner Jeff Gural began testing for cobalt and kicking out Standardbred trainers whose horses were found to have astronomic levels of the substance in their system.

This stuff has been used and abused by the cheaters for years, and they have been getting away with it.

So here comes the RMTC, years after cobalt's abuse is known, making a recommendation that a threshold for cobalt of 25 parts per billion in blood samples be added to model rules published by the Association of Racing Commissioners International. That recommended threshold, incidentally, is 12.5 times higher than the threshold established by the Hong Kong Jockey Club last year after scientific research on cobalt was published.

The tortoises are, in fact, running in a relay race, with the baton clumsily being passed by the RMTC to the RCI.

RCI will consider the RMTC threshold recommendations in April at its annual convention – emphasis on “consider,” since RCI president Ed Martin has virtually declared war on the RMTC. It's widely believed RCI will put an even higher threshold level into its model rules, making America's “war on cobalt” the laughingstock of the rest of the racing world. The cheaters, no doubt, will join in on the laughter.

Once RCI makes its recommendation for a model rule on cobalt, the individual state racing commissioners will return home and consider adding the model rule (or an amended version) to their regulations. That could take months or years.

And then, of course, there is testing for cobalt, which requires sophisticated equipment and an outlay of expense that some states simply are not willing to invest.

It should be added here that the Indiana Horse Racing Commission moved relatively quickly to regulate cobalt last year after unannounced testing showed enough abuse to be cause for concern. A few other states have started testing for cobalt levels but have no rules on the books for what to do with cheaters.

Cobalt is just the latest tool used by the cheaters, who know how slow the tortoise moves. We've seen it before with bicarbonate loading (milkshakes) and how long it took from the time it was a problem until testing for TCO2 levels began. EPO has been used indiscriminately by some veterinarians and trainers for decades without concern of getting caught.

If and when these tortoise-like regulators put in place a cobalt testing program, the cheaters will have found a new flavor for performance enhancement. And then the long, slow race plays out again.

  • naprovniknaprovnik

    Perhaps they don’t really want to thwart the people using it – upsetting the apple cart of “leading” trainers and Big Money owners is not in their wheelhouse.

    • Rachel

      Well, having watched this circus (different actors, same three rings) for 4 decades, I do believe you win the internet!

  • Ben van den Brink

    I tend to think that the RCI is not willing to set up strict regulations, probably those costs are too high to exercise in the end. But this also means that the owner with a high moral will be out of the game, as the cheaters can go on undisturbed.

    • Bill O’Gorman

      Ben,
      The first step is for the “owner with a high moral” to embrace the concept of warning off owners for positive tests upon their horses. If it was 5 weeks for a first offence, then five years next time, that should cover the genuine mistakes. Obviously the trainer would get the same, but as long as the highly moral owner had chosen his trainer wisely and had “marked his card” for him they should both be quite safe, although it might take the trainer a while to figure out how to cope.

      • Ben van den Brink

        I fully agree upon that.

        But the buizz in the US seems to be more poluted then elsewhere.

        And as long as testing budgets are too small to be effective, nothing will chance Iam afraid.

  • Elliott ness

    Idea, take at the owners cost, a blood test for cobalt, before any horse races or is allowed to enter the grounds of any racetrack or training center, result posted for each horse with owners name and trainer also. Every 90 days new test with results posted. Random test, keep the thieves on their toes. Let the betting public see ppm in each horse. How about prior to wood memorial, blue grass, Santa Anita derby, test and post ppm for the world to see. Triple crown races, all horses tested prior and after post results. Only the folks that put on the show, can put forth rules for the show. This element occurs naturally , this is the huge nightmare, lawyers, etc. If I head over to the feed store and buy , oats, sweet feed, electrolytes, oil, hay , alfalfa, Timothy, rye straw, what are the chances my horse will end with high ppm for cobalt? Answer ,zero. The trainer at Hot Springs, his horses were loaded up, question, can anyone tell me where the trainers get the cobalt, how it is administered ,and how a horses future , health wise looks after this high cobalt.? Please.

    • Ben van den Brink

      I have been mentioning that idea about testing at the owners charge a while ago, positive means automatically written off in the account, negative, costs divided as usual.

      But when one is looking about the spenditure from racing commissions towards other countries, one is only able to say, that the costs seems to high to the commissions.

    • youcantmakeitup

      Readily available on the internet

  • betterthannothing

    Thank you for that somber report. Horses need constant protection against cheaters/abusers to best prevent doping and abuse since the post-race chemical hunt is an endless failure.

  • Pat SayJack

    Let’s hear from all the apologists, you know who you are, that for years told us it was just new shoes, a carrot, and better hay that was moving them up 10 lengths. No, I don’t think they want to remind us who they are.

  • Ed “no guts” Martin

    Once again Ray shines a glaring light on how inept Ed Martin and the ARCI is these days. I truly believe Ed Martin and his friends at the various racing commissions purposely take their good old time to justify their existence. What’s worse, when testing begins, they’ll give a good ‘ol warning to the cheating horseman. So, when they move onto the next cheating medication, the ARCI will drag their feet for three years and people have a 3 year window to cheat then know they’ll just get a notification saying “Hey guys, we have a test now. you have to stop using it.” Ed Martin doesn’t deserve 1/10 of whatever miserable salary he makes in a year because he’s a coward who won’t stick his neck out and encourage real reform. Where is Travis Tygart and USADA? They took down Lance Armstrong, I’m sure they can fix a sport where cheating is tolerated.

  • Joel Firsching

    Why cant the public see the test results for each horse after a graded stakes race ? Then we can learn which trainers are pushing the limits. When everything is out in the open, vets and trainers are more inclined to stay clean.
    If drugs are so important, the public deserves the right to know which drug and how much.

    • Michael

      And who is using it. They use to print positives in the DRF but not any more.

      • Mike Walker

        you can find positive tests for results most states pretty easy in the internet.

  • Elliott ness

    Yes Joel this will be the quickest way to clean the entire sport, transperency. When the owners start to suffer the disgrace of being party to animal abuse, it will stop for sure. The owners are the biggest party to the doping issue in this country. The owners better beware , or they shall have a stain that cannot be washed. The owners pay for the drugs and chemicals, when the owners stop it, the sport will be clean.

    • gls

      Beware of sweeping generalizations, the good owners pay attention and know whats going on with their horse. I have a problem with the management of the tracks who watch a claimed horse move way up in class in a short time. I believe Charlie Wittingham said “take away the pain and give them air and they will run all day” . When I see a modest or cheap horse rebreak at the 1/8 pole you have to know they have help. This has to stop for the sake of the horse and the sport.

      • Elliott ness

        The owners in this noble sport, can end this pattern of cheating and animal abuse with two words, and they are, NO MORE.

        • gls

          Really! No more what?

          • Elliott ness

            No more sending their horses to trainers that have a history of breaking the rules. No more paying insane vet bills. No more indiscriminate joint injections, no more clenbuterol. No more NSAIDs stacking. No more synthetic muscle relaxants. No more training on acepromazine. No more steroids. No more fake work out times. No more cheating, period. Really!!

          • Bill O’Gorman

            Don’t worry Elliot – instead of listening to you and me they can get them scanned now and pretend that they’re doing the right thing. Of course as far as insane vet bills goes ……!! This is like fighting blancmange, don’t you think?

          • gls

            Exactly, and well stated.

  • Jack Frazier

    Realistically, nothing is going to change. Cobalt is fed to the horses and is provided by someone. It may be a vet or someone else. If they dropped the hammer on the CostCo trainers with stables really too large for a man or woman to pretend they train, it might make a difference. However, as usually happens, if the big guy is given days his assistant takes over with never a blip. The way to handle it is to have a rule that if a trainer gets a bad test for anything and is given a vacation, no one working for him can assume the stable. Owners would be notified that they have to move their horses to another trainer or they cannot have them on the grounds and they will not be accepted as an entry in a race. Does anyone really think tracks or stewards have the balls to do this? However if it a small trainer, they will be given the shaft while old CostCo just keeps on. Many owners and trainers are choosing not to race because of the unlevel playing field.

  • James Morley

    To further your article and frustrations surrounding blatant cheating with no regard to the horses well being, please have a look at what is happening in Australian thoroughbred racing at the moment. Several high name trainers are looking at 3 year bans from the sport on the back of 3 and 5 year bans already handed down to other trainers over Cobalt use.

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