A bad case of the cobalt blues

Kath Logan Columnist

By Kath Logan, Kath Logan is a Roar Expert

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    Peter Moody has quit training in the wake of the Lidari cobalt trial. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

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    Racing has a long history of amateur pharmacology and the dose of the day is cobalt. Current stewards’ inquiries into cobalt use in NSW and Victoria have put a very public microscope on some of racing’s slyest characters.

    Quebec’s most committed beer drinkers accidentally proved the lethality of high cobalt levels in the 1960s, when 50 of them developed unexplained heart disease and 20 dropped dead from heart attacks.

    Autopsies blamed the cobalt that local breweries used to stabilise foam. When cobalt (a transition metal that can cause acute or cumulative poisoning) was removed, the deaths stopped.

    Cobalt doping is a type of blood doping that assumes horses will react to cobalt in the same way that humans and laboratory animals do. In those species, research shows that high cobalt levels stimulate production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.

    The downside is that high cobalt levels cause severe damage to organs and sensory systems, and hamper blood clotting. For obvious reasons, cobalt is no longer used in medicine and is banned for athletes.

    There are no recorded cases of horses having cobalt deficiency. High cobalt readings cannot result from the use of veterinary supplements. Knowing that high doses of cobalt are poisonous made further research unnecessary.

    Due to the damage it causes, a group of leading equine vets has expressed serious concerns over the cruelty implications of cobalt doping. The Victorian RSPCA is following the case closely and will lobby for changes to animal cruelty laws to make administering illegal substances to animals a cruelty offence.

    Urine tests on ordinary horses will always show tiny traces of cobalt – single-digit readings, around 5 micrograms (µg)/litre – because it is a naturally occurring trace element and essential micronutrient. High cobalt levels are caused by cobalt injections and drenches, not feed supplements or hoof treatments.

    On January 1 2015, the national cobalt standard for racing horses was introduced. The threshold is a generous 200 µg/litre – double scientific recommendations.

    Harness Racing NSW first became aware of cobalt doping in 2013 and have led research into preventing it. They took initial advice from Dr Terence Wan of the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Racing Laboratory who has been working on cobalt doping since 2007.

    Wan said that 60 µg/litre was an absolute upper limit reading for an untreated horse but that 100 µg /litre would clearly show that a horse had been treated on race day. This is the cobalt threshold used in Hong Kong.

    When Harness Racing NSW conducted an 80-sample population study in NSW and Queensland, the average reading was 17 µg /litre – three times what would be expected. However, statistical analysis of those 80 samples still supported Wan’s threshold.

    Despite this evidence, the Harness Racing NSW Board accepted NSW Integrity Manager Reid Sanders’ recommendation that they introduce a cobalt threshold double Wan’s recommendation – 200 µg/L.

    As an aside, it is worth noting that Australian horses were excluded from the International Confederation of Horseracing’s international testing and analysis of cobalt use in racing done in 2013. They suspected (and were proven right) that cobalt was being being used in Australian racing and that it would skew the results.

    Research shows that one-off doses of cobalt do not benefit horses’ EPO concentrations, red blood cell parameters or heart rate. Cobalt doping in human athletes shows that it is best used repeatedly, which preconditions tissue to hypoxia, protects skeletal muscles from exercise-induced oxidative damage, and enhances endurance.

    The focus on race-day testing won’t catch those who are exploiting the real advantage of cobalt – preconditioning. Catching them would require widespread out-of-season and post-competition testing by authorities.

    Instead of clearing things up, introducing an out of season testing regime is likely to muddy the waters even more.

    Different thresholds would have to be set for non-race-day tests to account for legitimate use of veterinary supplements, but the manufacturers can offer little test data to say what those levels should be.

    Understanding of clinical and pathological conditions that may affect horses’ cobalt levels is comparatively poor. Even if it was understood, accurately factoring those conditions in would require a substantial baseline data set of untreated racing horses from different regions, and there isn’t one.

    The aggressive smoke and mirrors shows put on by legal eagles at the NSW and Victorian inquiries are a distraction from the core issue. So is their chorus line – trainers, stable hands, vets and hangers on, who range from bumbling accomplices to out-and-out liars.

    Cobalt is a banned substance. Cobalt doping is a calculated risk that assumes horses will react to cobalt preconditioning as other species do, resulting in a clear competitive advantage.

    When a horse tests high for cobalt it shows that someone has deliberately exposed the horse to likely organ failure, permanent lameness, damaged senses or death. It is undeniably cruel and against the rules of racing.

    Which raises the question – does the 200µg/litre threshold prevent cobalt doping? Does testing below the 200µg/litre limit prove that a horse is clean or just that it hasn’t been dosed recently?

    At the Racing NSW inquiry, a text from John Camilleri said it all: “These galloping Cs have to wake up a week before to outsmart us trotting grubs.”

    The excessive cobalt threshold means that the grubs don’t have to be smart or subtle to slip through the net.

    Raised in a family of rugby tragics, Kath Logan attended her first rugby test in a baby basket in 1970. Passionate about good people and good communities, she has worked in numerous regional and remote areas where sport has been a powerful force for change. What happens off the field is often more exciting than what happens on it.

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    The Crowd Says (11)

    • Roar Guru

      August 11th 2015 @ 8:42am
      Nathan Absalom said | August 11th 2015 @ 8:42am | ! Report

      I agree there should be more out of competition testing, I think that sometimes racing authorities fall back to the historic view that they are trying to protect the integrity of the race itself, rather than the broader integrity of the sport. This means they are more worried about an old-fashioned plunge on a drugged horse or greyhound rather than people using substances for sustained benefits to win more prizemoney. Not sure the physiological effects of cobalt will be the same for humans and horses (or greyhounds) though, horses and greyhounds have much greater red blood cells stored in their spleen that are released when they sprint, so I would think that there’ll be some differences with the effects of the drug in this case.

      Also, while I agree the act of administrating cobalt is cruel, a problem for animal cruelty legislation in this instance is that it would contain a different standards of guilt and different levels of permissible evidence than the racing tribunals. Racing tribunals need to show that the horse contains a prohibited substance, or that you have possession of a prohibited substance, and then the trainer is responsible. To find someone guilty of animal cruelty, you would have to show beyond reasonable doubt that the person you accuse of administrating the drug, did indeed administer the drug. So while I see the point of the legislation, I would expect there’d be very few convictions, and could even be counter-productive if a high-profile case is found not guilty in court after being rubbed out of racing. It’s easy to call for such legislation, but much more difficult to get legislation of that type correct.

    • August 11th 2015 @ 9:09am
      Clarence the Clocker said | August 11th 2015 @ 9:09am | ! Report

      Good article Kath. Surprising you didn’t refer to the death of Midsummer Sun, after it returned elevated cobalt levels in its Gosford Cup win earlier this year.

    • August 11th 2015 @ 10:15am
      cowcorner said | August 11th 2015 @ 10:15am | ! Report

      Very interesting article Kath. I like the cruelty angle. Fair enough given the chances of sudden death ensuing.

    • Roar Guru

      August 11th 2015 @ 10:29am
      Brent Ford said | August 11th 2015 @ 10:29am | ! Report

      Midsummer Sun the tragedy of this whole Cobalt saga.

    • August 11th 2015 @ 12:06pm
      paulywalnuts said | August 11th 2015 @ 12:06pm | ! Report

      “The threshold is a generous 200 µg/litre – double scientific recommendations.” Which is of course just one of the problems with this dog of a rule. We’ll condone massively elevated levels of cobalt, but not a microgram more. In other words, cheat but not too much.

      Secondly, as the author points out, cobalt deficiency is not a problem but the industry condones the use of feed and vitamin supplements that have been shown to spike cobalt to huge levels. And then 6 month after introducing the rule warn participants of this.
      A rule which is introduced to stop performance enhancing, except that it doesn’t…. and lo and behold they’re having great difficulty prosecuting their cases.

      Rub it out and start again.

    • Editor

      August 11th 2015 @ 2:16pm
      Tristan Rayner said | August 11th 2015 @ 2:16pm | ! Report

      Great article Kath and well done for pursuing the issue.

      The threshold is a difficult one. No one wants an innocent party victimised for an elevated cobalt reading.

      No one wants someone to get away with doping but keeping just under a generous level.

      I imagine the threshold will be reigned in once further testing facilities are in place and the vast, vast majority of readings are closer to zero than 100+ ug/L

      • Roar Guru

        August 11th 2015 @ 5:21pm
        Nathan Absalom said | August 11th 2015 @ 5:21pm | ! Report

        Yes, I expect the readings will become lower, even if only because people look more carefully at the supplements they’re giving and don’t use the ones with Cobalt. Be careful not to give the threshold level too much significance as it is dependent on pharmocokinetics and my understanding is Cobalt is excreted pretty quickly, around a day I think. So, if you’re worried the threshold is too low, or someones horses are giving readings higher than others, just turn up the night before a race, or early in the morning on race day, and take the sample.

        Some racing administrators just don’t seem happy when they catch the cheats, as though they would rather not deal with negative publicity.

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