Updated on 03/07/2014 9:30PM

California will begin testing horses for cobalt


The California Horse Racing Board will begin testing for levels of cobalt in post-race urine and blood samples from racehorses in an attempt to determine whether rumors surrounding the administration of the naturally occurring element are true.

Though no penalties will be issued under the new testing program, the CHRB said in a notice released late Tuesday that a finding of cobalt in a concentration above certain levels in the blood and urine of a horse will “trigger an investigation to determine the source of the cobalt.” The CHRB will also launch a similar investigation for the horses in its necropsy program who exhibit the highest 10 percent of cobalt levels.

Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director of the CHRB, said in an interview that rumors surrounding the administration of cobalt salts – a water soluble substance that can be administered either orally or through an injection – have intensified over the past several months. The element is allegedly being administered under the belief that high levels could spur the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.

The CHRB said it was launching the testing program because the board “considers the administration of cobalt salts a potential equine health and safety issue” because high levels of the element have been associated with heart attacks and other “organ pathology in humans and animals.”

Last year, the CHRB conducted an investigation of seven sudden deaths in the barn of the trainer Bob Baffert during a 16-month period from December 2011 to March 2013. The investigation concluded that Baffert did not violate any California Horse Racing Board rules. Five of the seven were found to have died of heart failure.

Baffert said on Friday that he had never administered cobalt salts to any of his horses, and that tests of the dead horses’ tissues did not turn up any evidence of cobalt toxicity.

“I’ve never given it, or even heard of it” until January of this year, Baffert said, when a harness track in New York banned two trainers for allegedly administering the substance.

An essential element, cobalt is necessary to form Vitamin B-12, which is a popular injection on racing backstretches. Arthur said it is not possible to administer so much B-12 that it leads to a toxic concentration of cobalt in the blood. Cobalt sulfates can be purchased at online compounders, some of which Arthur called “adventuresome.” Compounded substances have become a major subject of focus among regulators over the past year.

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The CHRB will not issue any penalties to a trainer whose horse tests positive for a high concentration of cobalt, Arthur said, because there is no established science yet on what should be considered an excessive level of the element. Arthur added that the CHRB has a rule preventing animal abuse, and that a case could be based on that regulation if the cobalt concentration could be considered potentially lethal.

“Cobalt has not been recognized as a toxic element until very recently, so no one knows what a high level is,” Arthur said. “That’s the problem right now.”

The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, a group funded by the racing industry to coordinate research on drugs, has begun an effort to establish a threshold level for cobalt, said Arthur, who is the secretary of the RMTC’s board. He said the work should be complete by mid-summer.

Earlier this year, officials of the Meadowlands, a harness track in New Jersey, said that they had banned two trainers after tests from horses based on farms near the track turned up “astronomical levels” of cobalt. The officials, who would not identify the banned trainers, said the track was implementing a threshold level for the element of “four times the standard deviation above the normal level.”

Related: Meadowlands sets threshold for cobalt; rules off pair of harness trainers

As long ago as 2009, the Ontario Racing Commission posted an alert to horsemen in Canada “to be very cautious with the administration of the substance cobalt sulfate.” The notice also said that “speculation about ‘performance-enhancing’ qualities are doubtful.”