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.

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