At a meeting on Tuesday, the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council voted to advance threshold recommendations for cobalt and GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid, also known as Carolina Gold) for consideration by the state's racing commission.
Members of the council agreed unanimously on the GABA recommendation, which aligned with the Racing Medication Testing Consortium's suggested 110 parts per billion in blood. GABA is believed to have a calming effect on horses for several hours after administration. The substance has been a source of scrutiny and debate in the sport horse world, where the United States Equestrian Federation declared it a prohibited substance in 2012.
Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, reported that GABA levels, which had been over the suggested threshold in Kentucky, came down after the state began administering race-day Lasix.
The KEDRC members were not in such total agreement on the topic of the proposed cobalt thresholds, however, and as is so often the case with regulation, the difference seemed to be a philosophical one between members.
The proposed thresholds before the council were also in alignment with RMTC recommendations, with an excess of 50 parts per billion in blood equal to a Class B violation, and a testing level between 25 and 50 parts per billion subject to a milder set of penalties. A test over 50 ppb would result in the horse being placed on the veterinarians' list, and a suspension for the trainer, while a level between 25 ppb and 50 ppb would place the horse on the veterinarian's list until it tested below 25 ppb and allowed stewards to issue either a warning or a fine to the trainer.
Scollay also indicated that recent research has been unable to support the notion that cobalt does create a blood-doping effect in horses. Instead, she said the reason for creating a threshold is a welfare issue, based on officials' observations of horses' reactions to being given a large dose of the mineral. Horses being given large doses of cobalt were described as sweating profusely, experiencing muscle tremors, and colic-like symptoms for “hours” after administration.
All KEDRC members agreed that excessive cobalt levels should be regulated, but some members voiced concern that supplements or routine vitamin/mineral treatments could result in levels above 25 ppb.
“Philosophically, I'm kind of opposed to the micromanagement of the nutritional welfare of the horse,” said Dr. Andy Roberts, member of the KEDRC.
Those in support of the measure believed that it should be the responsibility of the trainer to read supplement labels and ensure their nutrition or medical program allows the horse to adhere to the state's rules.
Scollay presented data from the Keeneland spring meet indicating that horses there tested between .37 ppb and 14.25 ppb, with the majority of those sampled coming in below 10 ppb. Before the commission announced it would be testing for the mineral, Scollay said some Standardbred test results were as high as 800-1,000 ppb. Since the announcement, those have come down.
Roberts and council member/Kentucky HBPA president Rick Hiles also questioned the fairness of the rule's implications in claiming situations. It's possible that a horse could be receiving excessive amounts of cobalt ahead of a claiming race and be claimed without being subjected to a post-race drug test; if the amount of cobalt given before the race is large enough, the horse might then have a surprise in store for the new owner if he goes to the test barn after the next race.
“If it's been two weeks, and I run that horse back in good faith and he comes up with an overage on cobalt … outside of me running a personal test on the horse, which I have no reason to suspect I need to, why would we want me to be running the risk of getting a bad test?” said Hiles.
This concern prompted the KEDRC to also make a recommendation to the commission that a rule be instituted to require post-race drug tests of all claimed horses, with the understanding that a claim could be voided dependent upon the results.
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