Updated on 10/01/2014 4:19PM

Harness study recommends high cobalt test threshold


A study funded by U.S. harness horsemen is recommending that state racing commissions adopt a far higher threshold for cobalt than previous studies have suggested, generating concern that an effort to swiftly crack down on the abuse of the naturally occurring substance may be delayed or sidetracked.

The study, which has not yet been released for review, is recommending that the threshold for cobalt be set at 70 parts per billion, nearly three times the 25-ppb threshold adopted recently in Indiana and, for Standardbreds in New York. The latest study, which was led by Dr. George Maylin, the head of New York’s Drug Testing and Research Program at Morrisville State College, was funded by the United States Trotting Association, which has a strained relationship with the organization leading an effort to reform racing’s medication rules.

“Absolutely, this could completely derail” the effort to regulate cobalt, said Dr. Dionne Benson, the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. “This is going to be just another point of contention.”

Cobalt, which occurs naturally in horses through the ingestion of feed and administration of some legal supplements, has become an urgent topic of concern in racing jurisdictions around the world over the past year. Regulators have alleged that horsemen are administering large quantities of cobalt through solutions called cobalt salts under the belief that high concentrations of the mineral will stimulate the production of red blood cells, mimicking the effect of illegal blood-doping drugs like erythropoietin.

Though Indiana and New York are the only two jurisdictions to adopt official cobalt threshold levels, many major racing jurisdictions were hoping to adopt a level within the next several months. So far, nearly all of the research reviewed by racing regulators have pointed to a threshold level set at 25 parts per billion.

Dr. Mary Scollay, the equine medical director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, cautioned that researchers have yet to review how the USTA-funded study was conducted. As a result, Scollay said it is still too soon to determine whether the study will have a significant impact on the debate.

“All that is out there is this number,” Scollay said. “It certainly raises questions. But I don’t know that a press release is sufficient grounds to justify any action.”

The release of the recommendation, however, could be used by groups opposed to the regulation of cobalt to cast doubt on the 25 parts per billion recommendation if and when that threshold is presented to racing commissions for adoption. Those groups will likely use the new recommendation to contend that the 25 ppb threshold could ensnare trainers whose horses tested positive only because they have a naturally high concentration of the substance in their bodies or ingested feed that had a large concentration of cobalt in it.

But research from other jurisdictions, including Australia and Hong Kong, has shown that most racehorses cannot test higher than 10 to 12 ppb even when administered cobalt-containing supplements such as vitamin B-12 injections as close as four hours prior to race time, according to researchers who question the 70 ppb recommendation. Those researchers said trainers are administering large quantities of cobalt salts – concoctions that do not have any therapeutic value in racehorses – five days out from a race. Those horses would rarely test positive after a race under the 70 ppb threshold, the researchers said.

Maylin said that the study used 254 Standardbred horses who had not recently been administered any artificial form of cobalt. The horses were tested for the concentration of cobalt in their blood, Maylin said, with the highest concentration among the horses tested reading 6.8 ppb. A statistical calculation was then performed on the results, generating the 70 ppb number, Maylin said.

“We are very confident in the data we have,” Maylin said.

Maylin was asked if it was possible for a horse to have a 70 ppb concentration of cobalt in the blood without the horse being artificially administered large quantities of cobalt. “The answer is no,” he said. “That’s absolutely impossible.”

A release from the USTA said that the 70 ppb threshold was appropriate.

“The recommendation guards against false positives, while identifying those who are engaged in artificial administration with the intent to enhance a horse’s performance,” the release said.