03/12/2015 3:49PM

High cobalt levels found in four of Smith's horses

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All of the horses trained by Kenny Smith at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., have been placed on the stewards’ list after four of his runners tested for high levels of the naturally occurring mineral cobalt, according to the track’s state steward.

Stan Bowker, the steward, said that Smith was notified last week that his horses would be barred from the entry box until they tested for cobalt concentrations under 25 parts per billion, a level that is currently in place as a regulatory threshold in one state, Indiana. Four horses trained by Smith had earlier tested for concentrations in excess of 100 parts per billion, Bowker said.

The Oaklawn development is the latest to involve the controversial mineral, which has been rumored to be in use among all horse-racing breeds as a cheap blood-doping agent. Cobalt, which can be administered in high concentrations through salts or in low concentrations through multi-ingredient supplements, is believed by some to stimulate the production of red blood cells, mimicking the effect of blood-doping drugs like erythropoietin, though studies have yet to conclusively demonstrate the effect.

Like every other state other than Indiana – where Bowker served as a steward last year – Arkansas has no rules prohibiting high cobalt concentrations. However, stewards at Oaklawn Park notified trainers at the beginning of the track’s meet that they would be testing for cobalt at random during the meet, Bowker said. Of the 100 horses tested for cobalt at this Oaklawn meet, Smith’s horses were the only ones to test higher than 25 parts per billion, Bowker said.

Many states have declined to adopt a rule on cobalt until additional scientific studies on the mineral have been completed. Citing a study it funded, the harness-racing community also has argued for a higher threshold level than the 25 ppb threshold in place in Indiana, stalling efforts in some states where both breeds race.

Last year, Indiana conducted cobalt tests on 358 Quarter Horses, Standardbreds, and Thoroughbreds racing in the state and found that 5.9 percent had a concentration in excess of 25 ppb. Of the Thoroughbreds in the tested population, 3.1 percent had a concentration in excess of 25 ppb. The tests led to the state racing commission adopting the 25 ppb threshold on an emergency basis.

Smith, who has 36 horses at Oaklawn and has won nine races from 66 starts at the meet, said on Thursday that he sent blood samples from all of his horses to a lab that morning for retesting. He said he and his vets “haven’t truly identified” any sources for the cobalt, and he said he has removed all of the supplements from his barn except for one liquid vitamin that does not contain the mineral.

“Just about any supplement out there contains some cobalt,” Smith said. “We haven’t figured it out yet.”

When asked whether there was an explanation for why his horses tested so high while other horses didn’t, Smith said, “None that I know of.”
The placing of Smith’s horses on the stewards’ list was first reported on the website The Paulick Report.

Studies have shown that cobalt has a half-life of approximately five days in the blood, according to Dr. Dionne Benson, the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. If that is the case, any horse trained by Smith who tested for a concentration in excess of 100 ppb will test above the 25 ppb threshold set by the Oaklawn stewards for at least 10 days after the initial test.

Bowker said that the vast majority of the 100 horses so far tested by Oaklawn had cobalt concentrations between 2 ppb and 6 ppb, which he called a natural range. Several horsemen whose horses tested for a concentration in excess of 10 ppb but below 25 ppb were called in to see the stewards for a discussion about the elevated levels “as a heads-up,” Bowker said.

Bowker also said that no horse at Oaklawn this year has tested positive for a prohibited drug or an overage of a regulated therapeutic drug, despite the implementation this year of new drug-testing protocols.

“We had to put [Smith’s] horses on the list in fairness to all those trainers here who are maintaining normal levels so that everyone’s competing on a level playing field,” Bowker said.