RCI president Ed Martin called the news that the United States Trotting Association (USTA) will fund research into cobalt and help the New York drug testing program gain access to equipment currently in use elsewhere by racing's leading testing labs a "positive, proactive development that underscores the ongoing efforts of the racing industry and its regulator labs to counter efforts to cheat”.
A number of racing states have already been testing for cobalt, both in and out of competition, using advanced ICP-MS instrumentation. (ICP-MS is the acronym for Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer).
Such instrumentation is commonly found in toxicology and veterinary diagnostic laboratories to detect metal poisoning in livestock (e.g., lead in cattle). Recent concerns about possible attempts to administer cobalt to affect performance have prompted several regulatory jurisdictions to quietly commence efforts in this area.
Commissions have been collecting samples for months. A research project being conducted by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium is scheduled for completion this summer to determine an appropriate threshold for cobalt.
Cobalt is a naturally occurring substance in the bodies of all mammals as well as being found in the environment. "The challenge is to determine what is an appropriate and normal level and the point in which it can be proven that cobalt levels had been deliberately manipulated in an attempt to affect performance,” said Martin.
Martin noted that deliberate administrations of cobalt could potentially harm a horse, if used in excess. In 2009, the Ontario Racing Commission issued the following notice:
"The Ontario Racing Commission (ORC) advises horsepeople to be very cautious with the administration of the substance cobalt sulphate to their horses. This mineral element is a water-soluble cobalt salt with a variety of industrial and agricultural uses, including being used as an ingredient in feed and mineral supplements.
"Used in safe and appropriate formulations, the substance is known to have certain blood building qualities. However, speculation about ‘performance enhancing' qualities are doubtful.”
The ORC's then Veterinarian Supervisor, Dr. Bruce Duncan, noted that "when administered in appropriate quantities, there is likely very little performance benefit. And when used in excess, this element can be toxic to horses.”
Cobalt is a constituent of vitamin B-12, and as a result, there is no recommended dietary allowance for it. Cobalt is one of the microminerals important for blood cell formation. The microbes in a horse's digestive system, particularly the large intestine, use the cobalt from a normal diet to incorporate it into Vitamin B-12. This vitamin is then used in conjunction with iron and copper in the formation and maintenance of blood cells.
Although the USTA funded Maylin-McKeever-Malinowski research project may appear redundant to the effort currently underway by the RMTC, RCI's Martin said that "the more data is developed, our efforts to analyze the science and develop sound policies is enhanced.” (RCI)