03/19/2015 12:50PM

RCI group expects to approve cobalt-threshold rule

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An organization that recommends national policies on racing regulations expects to approve a rule establishing a threshold for the naturally occurring mineral cobalt at its next meeting in April, the executive director of the organization said on Thursday.

The Drug Testing Standards and Practices Committee of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, an umbrella group for state racing commissions in the U.S., plans to discuss a cobalt rule at a meeting April 21, according to a release from the RCI. The committee discussion likely will lead to the approval of a threshold level for cobalt, which is rumored to be in use by trainers of horses worldwide as a cheap blood-doping substance despite the apparent toxicity of the mineral when administered in extremely high doses.

“We are obviously concerned about the use of cobalt with the belief that it will enhance performance,” said Ed Martin, the executive director of the RCI, in the release. “But while the published science is not fully settled at what point that actually happens, we believe it is wrong to deliberately put a horse in discomfort absent a compelling medical reason to treat a serious ailment or injury. This issue is about the horse and not just about doping.”

One state in the U.S., Indiana, has passed a rule establishing a threshold level for cobalt, though several other states, including Kentucky and New York, are in the process of gathering information on the mineral as part of the rulemaking process. Indiana’s threshold was set at 25 parts per billion per liter of blood.

U.S. racing states generally follow the lead of the RCI when the organization passes a recommended rule, though many states in the past have also modified the recommendations. Some members of the veterinary community and the Standardbred industry have argued that the 25 ppb threshold is too low, though studies have demonstrated that the 25 ppb concentration cannot be reached without a horse receiving artificial administrations of cobalt, a common ingredient in supplemental products.

Cobalt is an essential component in the production of red blood cells, leading some to believe that it can have performance-enhancing effects similar to the banned blood-doping drug erythropoietin. The performance-enhancing effect of high cobalt levels has yet to be conclusively demonstrated, however.

Last week, stewards at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., placed all of the horses trained by Kenny Smith on the stewards’ list because of several high tests for cobalt. The horses will not be allowed off the list until they test under the 25 ppb threshold.

The RCI said its rule likely will require horses who test higher than the threshold level to test below the level before they will be allowed to run. Trainers of horses who test at “levels indicative of an intentional administration” will face sanctions, the RCI said.